Web Analytics
Recycling: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - TNK Green

Recycling: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Be honest. How often do you think about what ends up in your trashcans and what happens with that waste after the municipal trucks come and collect it on collection day? In South Africa, we see the trolley guys arrive in our neighbourhoods and watch them rummage through the bin collecting paper, hard plastic and tin in their large white waist bags until bottles below over the top.

So out of sight, out of mind right? If these street folk collect and sort my trash why should I worry about it?  Even though these street folk currently make up the lifeblood of the recycling industry in South Africa we all can do a little more to help address the waste problem.

The Problem

Currently, humanity produces two billion tonnes of waste a year. Recycling is an important part of managing this waste and creating a circular economy. This means an economy where resources are reclaimed and used to produce new products rather than the point to point linear economy currently dominant worldwide. So let’s talk trash. How does recycling work, why is it important and what can you do to help?

In principle discarded materials like glass, paper, plastic and steel are collected and sorted. Depending on the material, different industrial processes are applied to produce reclaimed raw materials that can be sold to manufacturers to create new products.

Simple as this sounds the current statistic for recycling are staggering. Only about 13.5 % of all waste are recycled globally and 33% of all waste still ends up in landfills. The remainder is either composted or incinerated.

One of the biggest hurdles is sorting because it is labour intensive and above all, not all materials can be reasonably recycled. The biggest problem with recycling would be single-use plastics that cant be recycled and what to do with these plastics.

South Africa according to a recent report by Stats SA only recycle about 10% of all waste generated in our country. The Western Cape leads with an average of 22% with Limpopo lagging behind with only 1.2% clearly illustrating where we currently lack in services and awareness that needs to be addressed.


Plastics are graded into several categories generally indicated with a number (1-7) in a triangle.

1 –  PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) A hard plastic commonly used for Coke Bottles. Widely recycled.

02 – HDPE (Polyethylene – high density) Generally used for caps and milk bottles. Can be recycled.

03 – PVC  (Polyvinylchloride) Commonly used as water and waste pipes. Not generally recycled.

04 – LDPE(Low-Density Polyethene) Shopping bags and most wrappings – not recyclable.

05 – PP (Polypropylene) Furniture, toys luggage – Not recyclable

06 –  PS (Polystyrene)Vending cups,  cases, jewellery, hard packaging – Not generally recycled

07 – OTHER – All other kinds of plastics like acrylic, polycarbonate, nylon, polylactic fires – not recycled

Of all the materials on this list, Plastic is the only synthetic one and although all of these materials can be recycled in theory only CAT1 – PET and CAT2 –  HDPE are currently commercially recycled. This leaves the remaining five categories either ending up in landfills, the ocean or incinerated releasing their toxins into the atmosphere.


Made from mostly Silica, glass can be melted down and reused almost indefinitely. With the global sand shortage recycling glass will become an ever more important industry in the future. There are various collection bins available in most communities so find your closes site and drop off your empties instead of just throwing them into the bin. Luckily as a natural material glass degrades naturally over time.


Paper is made from wood fibres that can be broken down and repulped to create new paper. Unfortunately, every time paper is recycled the fibres become shorter and shorter until it’s regarded as sludge that is no longer usable. This means that paper has a finite life cycle but luckily most paper products are 100% biodegradable and if sourced from sustainable forestry can be regarded as green. Be aware that there are various composite paper-plastic products on the market (commonly used for milk and juices bottles) that can not be recycled so enquire if you are uncertain if something can be recycled. The benefits of recycling paper are that every ton of recycled paper saves approximately 17 trees.

Metal & Electronic waist

Regardless of whether it’s coper, chrome, aluminium, lithium or steel, all metals can be reforged and reformed into raw bars. Some metals require more energy input than others (since most metals melt at temperatures generally exceeding  1000 ⁰C/ 1832 ⁰F) but the end product is the same, new workable metal.

Let’s face it, metal is not something the general consumer recycle often. Scrapyards deal in large scale reclamation and often won’t even consider anything under 1 ton. So if you are demolishing a steel building, ask your demolition contractor about their reclamation, disposal and recycling policies.

This still leaves rare metals found in most of our electronic devices. Although e-waist is a lot more complex to recycle there is a growing industry due to scarcity. A quick search on google should direct you to your closest electronics waste recycling centre but do phone ahead and enquire on what products they accept and what not.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce: We as consumers need to demand change from the brands and politicians we support and demand broadscale change. In the end regardless of how we like to reduce our consumption if production continues at present rates without changing it won’t really matter.

Reuse: Whenever possible try to buy products packaged in something that you can reuse. Glass bottles can be repurposed and used for storage. Be creative and upcycle if need be.

And as a last resort Recycle what you can. By just being aware of what you consume and what you throw into the trash you would be surprised as to how you change the way you think and what you buy.

In Conclusion

There is a lot more to be done in the developing world to formalize the recycling industry. Municipalities can start by introducing formal collection services and in the process, help create jobs in local collection and sorting centres.

As a consumer, we can do very little except be aware of what we consume and at least try to mitigate our impact by consuming more responsibly. Take your own bags to the shop and refuse single-use plastic items and buy products packaged in paper or glass, rather than plastic, wherever possible.

Unfortunately avoiding single-use plastic altogether is nearly impossible but write to the companies and brands that you choose to support with your hard-earned cash and enquire about their plans towards 100% recyclable packaging and see how they respond. Maybe if enough of us raise our voices, we can create positive change.

Visit SA Corona Virus Site for updated information