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Science of Recycling Series: Setting the Scene

As a launch to the Science of Recycling Series, let me assure you that all the information given here is from scientific literature, and none of my opinions are given without first having consulted experts. This is integral in order for you to find out the reality of what is truly going on with waste. In this first issue, we set the scene for recycling so that you can know where we stand.

Nationally, South Africa recycles 34% of its mainstream recyclables such as paper, plastics, glass and metals. This is very low compared to Germany (67%), yet much higher than Jordan (7%).

Municipalities have the mandate to manage waste, but they can also outsource it to private companies, nevertheless, municipalities still have the ultimate responsibility for waste. Municipalities are not compelled by law to do recycling, and still prefer to use landfills because it is the cheapest option. However, Johannesburg has 7 years left of ‘airspace’ in its landfills, so as we approach this D-day, there may be an urgent need to revise the law. Regardless, I’m not sure if this would save us because it is possibly already too late. However, there is a pretty good Waste Management Plan in South Africa which outlines the roadmap to a more sustainable waste system. But we are notoriously good at planning and not actioning enough so now, more than ever, we just need action.

Increasing action is a complicated topic because South Africans are a complex kind…Let us look at an interesting example: In 2004, South Africa introduced a plastic bag levy to attempt to reduce plastic bag consumption. It was indeed successful – the plastic bag consumption went down - but it was short lived… After consumers got accustomed to paying for bags, the consumption of plastic bags went up again. It appears that the news of paying for bags was a shock, but the news that plastic bags are harming us went unnoticed.

South Africans are not yet very conscious of recycling so we are a long way off from fixing this… I lived in Germany and I’ve seen that recycling requires a kind of discipline that we don’t have yet... In fact, even if the State provides all the infrastructure necessary to do recycling, it is likely that the people will not use it properly because we don’t yet see the benefits of the extra effort.

If you think education is the main problem, you might be right, but here, in our small neighborhood, with the most educated and caring people in the city, only 10-20% of us do recycling. Our education is only useful when we put it into practice. If we can’t action this ourselves in our small community, then it will be difficult to promise to our children that their future will be cleaner. Nevertheless, with a little more action by each of us, we can become a beacon of inspiration for our city and country.

Reference: Department of Environmental Affairs. 2018. South Africa State of Waste Report – first draft report.

Sweepnet, 2014

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