recycling south africa

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Recycling in South Africa

Did you know that 90% of waste in South Africa ends up in landfill every year? And, at the rate we’re going, we’ll soon run out of space at landfills. 22 of the 25 landfills in the Western Cape, for example, have less than 5 years of airspace left

So, what can be done? Well, for a start, we could be better at recycling.

Of all the plastics that were recycled in 2018, 70% were recovered from landfills and other post-consumer sources. This high volume of recyclable waste recovered from landfills suggests that the country needs to focus on separation-at-source initiatives. That means us, in our homes, doing better. “Recyclables are a valuable resource and should be removed from the solid waste stream before reaching landfill,” says Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom.


As with many issues in South Africa, there’s good news and bad news. Bad: currently, 34% of citizens do not have access to regular waste collection services. Good: South Africa’s recycling infrastructure has developed to make it as easy as possible to #SeparateAtSource as certain recyclable materials can be grouped together. This is called “multi-recycling” and simply means separating all your recyclables from your general waste. In fact, all your paper-based recyclables can go in one clear refuse bag, making recycling accessible and easy. The balance of your recyclables such as glass, plastic and cans can be placed in a separate bag, purely because they often carry liquid which can contaminate paper and cardboard.


“How recycling is collected differs from community to community. There might be a formal recycling collector, collectors who service particular residential areas, or local community collection points such as schools, retirement villages or shopping malls,” says John Hunt, Managing Director of Mpact Recycling. It’s up to the individual to find out what options are available to them. 

In fact, it’s also up to the individual to find out exactly what is recycled by their recycling processor, because it differs according to which one you supply. “South Africa does not have a centralised recycling system like many other countries do,” says Candic Mostert of Waste-ED. “Instead, we have 300 private companies operating in this space. It comes down to each and every recycler according to their processing capabilities and what the supply and demand is of certain resins. “

You know the recycling code on products? “That code is just an indication to the recycler of what the item’s melting point is,” Candice says. “Generally numbers 3, 5 and 6 are not recyclable. But it’s down to each recycler. So the best approach is to contact your own recycler and ask them what resin numbers they process. Anything that’s dirty gets dumped. That’s why cleaning your recycling is so important. All our recycling gets sold to countries around the world.”


The CSIR estimates that the recycling industry provides income opportunities for around 60 000 – 90 000 waste pickers alone. “Understanding the ways recycling works in your community, and the significant implications of not recycling, is a great way to start making your own positive impact on the volume of waste on South African landfills,” says Hunt.

Bad: That initial state is correct – only 10% of our waste is recycled. Good: plastics recycling in South Africa ‘continues to grow’, with more than 330 700 tonnes recycled annually. In fact, the average recycling rate for plastics exceeds 43%, which the analysts note is higher than the 31% figure for Europe. There are more than 4 000 glass collection points in South Africa which is home to 32 dedicated Collect-A-Can companies. These jointly collect 72% of all beverage cans and recovered more than 75% of all metal packaging last year. We also have over 300 recycling companies.

Big change can start with small actions, right in your home. Lockdown has shown us just how much packaging that we as consumers go through on a daily basis. Think about every piece of waste you throw into your dustbin and look at it as throwing money into the very same dustbin. Then, once you know how easy it is to save your recyclables from the dustbin, you will see how easy it is to recycle in your community. 

So, what can and can’t you recycle?

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