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Natalie Swan

March 14, 2023

How to recycle 101

Reduce. Re-use. Recycle. If we’re looking to limit our impact on the planet, then the first two of those three Rs are key as you limit the amount of packaging you consume and then throw away. But if you've ever tried to go completely waste-free — that's no cardboard, plastics or other packaging — you'll know it's pretty hard. (Although, if you'd like to give it a go, do check out this 31-day challenge here.)

And while it's still important to reduce and re-use, the realities of everyday life mean that you’re likely to have some waste going into the bin. And here’s where the final R comes in.

Who’s recycling?

A 2018 study by Plastics SA put South Africa’s input recycling rate at 43.7%, against Europe’s 31.1%. This, however, masks the fact that the majority of recycling is not done by individuals, but by the massive informal economy industry of recyclers sorting through household waste in outside bins. Or, even more dangerously for pickers’ health and safety, at landfill sites. So to increase the percentage of waste recycled as well as ensure that waste pickers are not having to wade through potentially hazardous materials as they sort, deciding to recycle at home is a no brainer.

Here's how to get started

What can be recycled

Often the most confusing part of the recycling process is knowing what can and can’t be recycled. For example, not all plastics and paper can be used again. Brand South Africa has this extensive list of what you can recycle.

Sorting & storing your recycling

Treevolution’s fantastic Beginners Guide to Recycling in South Africaseparates recyclable waste into five main categories:

  1. Glass
  2. Plastic
  3. Paper
  4. Metal
  5. Biodegradable food waste

Once you’ve decided which, or all, of these categories you are going to start recycling, identify a space and container to store them in. Things to think about include finding containers that can easily be transported and taken to a waste drop off point if you have no at-home collection and making sure that bins have lids to avoid attracting pests. Most importantly, you need to find an easy way to integrate sorting and storing into your daily routine to get into the habit of recycling at home. Lastly, remember to wash any dirty packaging before recycling.

How to dispose of your recycling

With only 56% of South African households having waste collected by their local authority, disposing of your recycling can require some thought. A great place to start your research is, where you can search for drop off points for different types of materials in your local area. If you don't fancy taking your rubbish elsewhere or haven't got a vehicle to transport it in, use the mywaste website or a quick google search to find private recycling collection companies in your area. A great idea is to have a chat with your local waste pickers and arrange for them to collect your pre-sorted rubbish.

Some useful links for finding recycling points near you

General: should be your first stop for finding local recycling solutions.

Glass: The Glass Recycling Company has this search function to find your nearest glass bank.

Paper: As of December 2019 this has got a bit harder as MPact Recycling, the main paper recycling non-profit in SA, is discontinuing their kerbside Ronnie Bank collections. They now advise you to make use of their schools and communities collections instead and information on finding your closest one can be found here. Other options include talking to your local informal waste collector or searching on the website.

E-waste: The e-Waste Association of South Africa has a map and search function to find your nearest e-waste drop off points.

City-based schemes: You can find a list of the 26 City of Cape Town recycling drop off points here and information on Johannesburg’s separation at source programme here. Your local municipality website is a good place to find information on any official collection and drop off schemes.

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