/ 12 October 2022

Complacency is the enemy in waste recycling

Passionate: Carmen Jordaan is the owner of Whole Earth Recycling in Johannesburg

The urgent need to ramp up recycling was recently highlighted during Clean Up and Recycle Week from 12 to 17 September.

But South Africans generate roughly 122-million tonnes of waste a year, so the scale of the problem we face as a nation requires more than a week’s worth of awareness. It requires action. A lot of it. And it requires it now.

The scale of the challenges

In a report published by Statistics SA in 2018, it was estimated that 90% of the 59-million tonnes of waste produced in 2011 ended up in landfills, with only 10% being recycled. With the rapid growth of solid waste and a shortage of suitable land to dispose of it, South Africa is also fast running out of space for waste disposal.

It was also estimated that only 5.2% of South African households recycled waste in 2015. This means the vast majority of households do not recycle, with more than three-quarters not separating waste for recycling because, they claimed, “they did not need to recycle as they could merely throw their waste in the dustbin for refuse collection”.

The recycling behaviour of households was largely dependent on the ability of municipalities to provide adequate refuse removal services, and while a reported 80% of municipalities seemed to have initiated some kind of recycling programme in 2007, the impact fell short due to struggles in implementation, such as a lack of capacity or infrastructure.

So, who’s getting it right?

In 2018, the European Union set a target that required member nations to recycle at least 70% of all packaged goods by 2030, and for household recycling rates to be at least 65% by 2035. The motivation behind these targets was to address the 11.2-billion tonnes of solid waste produced on Earth every year, which contributes directly to global greenhouse emissions.

Germany currently sits in first place in the list of top recycling countries, with 56.1% of all waste recycled. As far back as 1990, the nation conducted a packaging audit that was intended to counteract landfill problems. Policymakers made producers responsible for the packaging waste they developed, inspiring manufacturers to develop “The Green Dot”, a first-ever dual recycling system for collecting waste from households and businesses. 

The country also introduced the German Packaging Act in 2019, which aimed to prevent or reduce the impact of packaging on the environment, while promoting the use of eco-friendly products. It also restricts the use of single-use products and bans the destruction of unsold durable goods in the trade bloc.

Close behind, Austria achieved a recycling rate of 53.8% in 2018. As part of their solutions for better waste management, they implemented a blanket ban on certain waste types going to landfill, with any product with a total organic carbon emission rate greater than 5% being banned. They also operate on a producer responsibility model, while being a big supporter of the circular economy, offering teaching materials, such as comics and colouring books, to help educate young people about the importance of recycling. 

As of March 2020, Austrian manufacturers have been banned from importing and selling certain types of plastic bags, with retailers unable to issue these types of plastic bags in the country as of June this year.

The only non-European nation listed in the top three is South Korea, with a recycling rate of 53.7%. Part of its success can be attributed to a system by which privately run companies collect waste and sell it for profit. Unfortunately, this system will change after China, the biggest buyer of Korean recyclable material, altered its own environmental policy to ban the import of plastic waste, posing a significant problem. 

Since then, South Korea has implemented its own policies that ban both coloured plastic bottles and PVC, while also planning to reduce and phase out the use of disposable cups and plastic screws by 2027. The country has also claimed it will improve the domestic recycling of plastic bottles by collecting them separately from other recyclables, with the aim to collect 100 000 tonnes of plastic bottles each year from 2022 onwards.

You can be part of the solution

With so many daunting figures when it comes to the scale of the waste management challenges that we face, the good news is there is no act too small to make a difference. And getting going can be as simple as separating your wet waste from your dry waste or educating yourself through online resources about local legislation and recycling solutions. 

Learn about what you can recycle, and what you can’t, and if there is a recycling collection company that operates in your area, make use of their services, or learn about where you can take your recycling if you want to do it yourself.

While recycling is a great and necessary solution, it’s just one of several important steps to living a more sustainable life. Reduce what you use and where possible, reuse what you can. Once you start doing your research, you’ll be surprised at the many containers and recyclable goods can be repurposed. You can also buy goods that are made from recycled materials, like certain refuse bags, plastic bottles, and paper products.

A bigger, better impact

The reality of recycling and the significance of its impact is not just that it’s good for the environment, reduces pollution, conserves energy, and saves natural resources; it’s also good for society. Recycling makes a direct contribution to job creation and job opportunities, while driving the vital shift towards responsible resource management, and purposeful re-use, which sits at the core of how we need to adjust our relationship with, and approach to, decreasing resources.

And when you look at the many challenges we face as a nation, many of which we may feel helpless to meaningfully address, the benefit and ease of recycling makes it a must for everyone. A simple act we can all do today to the greater benefit of all of us tomorrow.