Yes, you can recycle your paper cups and milk cartons

We use them every day: cups of take-away coffee on the way to work, cartons of milk and juice, a box of popcorn and a cup of our favourite soft drink at the movies. All these containers have two things in common: they are made mostly of paperboard and are now recyclable in South Africa.

Paper recycling in the country started as far back as 1920. Today, South Africa recycles 70% of its paper, cardboard boxes and liquid packaging. This equates to about 1.3 million tonnes — an amount that would fill 1 539 Olympic-sized swimming pools. But there is always room for improvement.

The paper and paper packaging industry has invested in recycling networks and technology to ensure that the useful paper fibre from everyday items is recovered and re-used to make paper, tissue and packaging material, instead of going to landfill.

For the past few years, the recycling of milk and juice cartons has been made possible through special pulping technology and, more recently, this technology has been engineered to include paper cups.

How are cartons and cups recycled?

Milk and juice cartons comprise 75% paperboard, with 25% made of aluminium and polyethylene (polyal) layers, which play an important role in food protection. Paperboard provides strength and structure. Cups are made up of 90-95% paperboard with a plastic coating that prevents them from leaking when filled with liquid.

Recycled responsibly, your cartons and cups will make their way to a sorting yard and eventually to one of two paper recycling mills: Gayatri Paper in Germiston and Mpact Paper in Springs. These mills have the unique technology to repulp this type of packaging and extract reusable paper fibre from the polyal or plastic.

The paper fibre is used to make various types of packaging and this packaging is, in turn, recyclable, explains Anele Sololo, manager: training, operations and promotions for the Paper Recycling Association of South Africa.

“This is a prime example of the circular recycling economy in action: diverting valuable raw material from landfill while supporting livelihoods along the way,” she says.

The polyal is baled for use in various applications such as pallets, wheelie bins and other moulded plastic products.

Think before you throw

“When you finish a carton of milk or your cup of coffee, place the empty, flattened container into a paper recycling bin, whether at home, school or work,” says Sololo.

They can also be placed in any of the 2 000 green Mpact paper banks located countrywide.

Alternatively, place them in a clear bag, along with cardboard boxes, paper and plastic bottles, ready for your neighbourhood recycling collector.

Brand owners and retailers should also recycle

“Brand owners and retailers can help drive recycling by printing recycling messaging on cartons, cups and other paper packaging.

“The retail sector can also install recycling bins throughout shopping malls and outside centres,” she says.

Office buildings can place paper recycling bins in passageways, at printing stations, in kitchens, canteens and receptions.

“By making recycling easier and by thinking about what we throw away, we can make a difference to our landfills and our economy,” says Sololo.

She adds that there are some simple ways to make recycling part of our lives.

Good garbage habits

1. Know why paper recycling is important.

It reduces the amount of re-usable paper-based material going to landfill. It also creates employment – from the people who walk the streets with their trolleys to big companies employing thousands of people who collect, deliver, sort and process recycled paper through to the manufacturing of new paper products.

2. Pick one recyclable.

Start with one type of waste stream – paper is sometimes the easiest because there are multiple collection or drop-off methods. Once you get the hang of it, start recycling plastic, glass and tin.

3. Make space for recycling.

Put a paper-only bin or box in an accessible place, preferably near your current rubbish bin. Space permitting, you may want to have smaller paper-only bins around the house.

4. Think before you throw.

  • Ask yourself: Is it re-usable? Can I re-purpose it? Is it recyclable?
  • Paper packaging, milk and juice cartons, paper cups; newspaper, brochures and magazines; office paper, telephone directories, paper gift wrap and damaged books that are not suitable for donation, are recyclable.

  • Separate non-paper packaging (for example, plastic, glass and tin) from paper and cardboard.
  • Not recyclable: Tissues and paper towels, nappies, sticky notes, wax- or foil-lined boxes, cement bags, dog food bags and laminated paper.
  • 5. Keep recyclable paper clean and dry. Liquids and food waste contaminate paper and reduces its value for collectors.

    6. Support a collector or recycling programme

  • Leave bags outside for a recycling collector.
  • Enrol in a street collection programme.
  • Drop off at a recycling depot.
  • Support local schools or community centres if they collect paper for fundraising.
  • When you see the reduction in your weekly waste-to-landfill, you will realise you are having a positive effect. Eventually, recycling becomes second nature.

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