For those concerned with living more consciously or zero waste, recycling is likely a part of your daily life. You are probably familiar with the warm fuzzy feeling you get knowing you doing something good. And you absolutely are doing something good! In a world where packaging is unavoidable and constantly not reusable, recycling is the only option to reduce waste. But, how much do you really know about recycling in South Africa, or even in the town you live in? How sure are you that you are doing it right?
Unfortunately what you think you understand about recycling probably isn't entirely correct.
Common Myths That Harm The Recycling Industry
Myth 1: If the packaging has a triangular recycling symbol on it, it can be recycled.
The little triangular image on the back of your packaging is widely misunderstood. This symbol only means that somewhere in the world the technology exists to recycle that type of packaging. The number in the centre of the triangle tells you what type of packaging it is. Some material types cannot be recycled in South Africa at all, others can only be recycled in 1 or 2 areas. Knowing your numbers is part of being able to recycle effectively. Where your recycling goes and what that recycling centre can recycle is also part of the process. If you don't know what can and can't be recycled in your area and how to identify it your bags of recycling often end up filled with things that won't be recycled. This creates more transport costs, more sorting costs and more labour costs for your recycling centre.
Myth 2: If it can be recycled in your area, and goes to the recycling centre to be recycled, it will get recycled.
Sadly, this isn't always the case. Different recycling centres specialise in different materials. Anything your recycling centre can't sell or doesn't specialise in gets sent back to landfill. Recycling in South Africa is operated as small, often informal, businesses. In order to survive, these businesses have to make a profit. Because the value and demand for some materials is bigger than others, many recycling centres will only focus on the more lucrative and easy to sell materials. If they are unable to find a buyer for a specific material, or if they are unable to sort, clean and prepare your material in a way a customer wants, they will send your materials back to landfill. Sending your materials to a recycling centre that won't recycle them creates cost for your recycling centre and results in recyclable materials ending up in landfill unnecessarily.
Myth 3: When you send your waste to recycling you are 'donating valuable goods'
This belief damages the industry hugely. It creates the expectation that people should get paid or rewarded for providing material that can be recycled. The amount a recycling centre can sell your materials for is very limited, for many reasons. The cost associated with transporting, storing, cleaning and preparing household materials for recycling leaves little to no profit for even the most sophisticated recycling companies. A recycling business is hard! The person who owns the recycling business probably struggles to make ends meet. But they do create jobs, clean up your area, reduce the amount of land needed for landfills and dumps. The recycling centers are doing us a favour, not the other way around.
Myth 4: Sorting and preparing materials for recycling is done in a factory with lots of high tech machines.
Forget everything you have seen on How It's Made or Popular Mechanics. You live in a third world country and 99.9% of your recycling centres are very third world. With such low profit margins, investing in lots of high tech machinery is not a possibility. Recycling centres are usually large open yards with a small cleaning area and various piles of materials scattered along the fence line.
Every truckload of materials is sorted by hand by a person whose job it is to rifle through your trash, sort, clean and bale it. Any dirt that goes in or grows in your recycling bag has to be sorted and cleaned by someones mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother. The 'dirt', mould, maggots or leftover food that accumulates in your recycling bag not only increases cleaning costs but can also prevent the materials from being viable for recycling. Health and safety is a huge concern for the people that work in your recycling centre. Be kind when you pack your recycling.
Myth 5: Recycling, like waste disposal, is a municipal service which municipalities manage and fund.
Different municipalities operate differently. Some municipalities facilitate the collection of recycling through private contractors, others don't. Even if municipalities facilitate collection of materials, all recycling centres are privately run businesses. They have demanding customer standards they need to meet, costs they need to cover and profit levels to maintain. If a recycling centre can't cover its costs, it's someone's business that will be forced to close. South Africans rely entirely on private individuals and private organisations to facilitate recycling of our waste.
So What Should We Be Doing?
Make sure the packaging you buy and send for recycling can and will be recycled by the center you send it to. It's important we nurture and support the recycling industry where ever we can. Knowing where your recycling goes, how it should be prepared and what they can do with it is part of the process. Follow the truck, pop in for a visit or drop off your materials at a centre that recycles what you need it to. Better yet, ask your neighbours what they know for sure about recycling in your area and collaborate. We are all in this together.
Recycle what you can and send less to landfill. Our land is precious. Let's use less of it for dumps and landfills and more for much-needed housing, industry and conservation. Check out our article on the real impact of our waste in South Africa to find out why reducing waste is so important. Your waste impact: what everyone needs to know.
Keep an eye out for future blogs on what small things you can do to do to improve the way you recycle.