South Africa produces about 42 million tonnes of household waste a year, of which only about 11% is actually recycled. This includes an estimated 70% of cans, 42% of glass and 30% of plastic - much of which is collected by trash pickers directly from dumps and landfills. That’s pretty good by international standards, but there is still a huge amount of waste.

Recycling is not purely for the good of our environment - it is currently an R25 billion industry in South Africa, so it’s good for jobs too. When you sort out your trash and properly dispose of it in the correct bins, you’re increasing the “grade” of your rubbish, which actually makes it more valuable to collectors and recyclers. Your behaviour change at home thus incentivises the industry to grow!

What can I do?

Pledge #4 of the 28 Day Challenge asks you to make a best effort to sort and recycle your waste.

We really liked the handy reference chart created by Green At Heart. Although the particulars of what can and can't be recycled vary geographically, we think this is a pretty good summary of the recycling available in most South African urban areas. Download a printable version on their site here.

Pledging to recycle has three parts:

  • Investigate what the services in your area accept for recycling. 
  • Separate these recyclable items from your general trash.*
  • Try and reduce your use of non-recyclable items.

*Dirty items CAN be recycled - just give food packaging a quick rinse when you do the dishes and don’t recycle paper that has been contaminated with food waste.

Separating your home rubbish at home allows for more efficient reuse and recycling of the waste you generate when it arrives at the processing centres - by doing this simple action, you make it possible to more to be recycled (plus it helps recycling businesses to stay a bit more profitable, which is essential if we want to see the sector grow).

Make your pledge a permanent commitment by leaving an Ocean Pledge.

But how do we know what can and cannot be recycled? Unfortunately, there is no quick trick to know if an item is recycled locally or not, and many of the "recycling logos" people are familiar with are actually just indications of what the product is made of, not whether or not they can actually be recycled. This issue has been reported on in South Africa, and brands are slowly shifting to packaging that more clearly indicates if the materials used are recyclable - so its always worth checking.

The key message is: It might be a small initial inconvenience to look up the recyclability of items, but once you know the status of your most commonly purchased products, this becomes quick and second-nature. Google is your friend, a search of "is X recycled in South Africa" turns up most answers quickly.

Why does it matter?

By recycling, you are reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill. By reducing what goes to landfill, you are also minimising the opportunities for plastic to make it into the environment, be it on land, rivers, or the sea. And you are reducing the pressure on our already overflowing landfills and the natural environment they occupy.

Ever wondered what the number inside the triangle on your packaging really means? We hate to tell you this, but if you thought the number is an indication of how many times the plastic can be recycled, you’ve thought wrong. The number in the triangle is the resin code, which ultimately tells you which type of plastic polymer the product is made of. This determines whether the plastic can be recycled and what it can be recycled into.

These resin codes might look like indications that the material is recyclable, but that's not always the case - you'll need to check what you local recycling centre or service provider accepts. Credit: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung [CC BY 2.0]

Myth-busting: Recycling is the "end-goal"

We have perhaps been lulled into the thinking that if we recycle, our waste and environmental impact vanish. In some instances, like with PET plastic, recycling is the way to go. But in reality, there are many plastics and materials that aren’t, or simply cannot be, recycled. 

The reasons for this are complex: It’s very difficult extracting materials made from a combination of materials, some processes can’t handle items that are contaminated with food, oil, soil, etc. And then there is, of course, the economic viability - virgin materials often are cheaper and easier to process, so recycled waste often gets “downcycled” rather than recycled, eg. PET from bottles being used to make roof insulation.

Credit: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung [CC BY 2.0]

This is why the steps we learned about in Pledges #2 and #3, REDUCE and REFUSE, are so much more important than RECYCLE. So, if you are already recycling, keep it up and if not, be sure to make your #oceanpledge to start!

Who can I follow?

An amazing company called CRDC (Centre of Regenerative Design and Collaboration) is inventing a process that can turn any plastic – dirty or clean – into building blocks for sustainable development.  We look forward to them launching in the Western Cape soon!

Did you know that the informal waste pickers are responsible for 90% of the plastic and paper that gets recycled in South Africa! Watch local surfing hero Frank Solomon, tell an inspirational tale about South Africa’s true recycling heroes.

Take the 28 Day Challenge! Make your Ocean Pledge!

This post is part of the #28DayOceanPledgeChallenge! You can find the other 27 posts and challenges on the Two Oceans Aquarium website, or by signing up for the Challenge newsletter below to receive one challenge a day for 28 days: