South Africa

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Recycling – sourcing waste in the home reduces operating costs in the long run

Recycling in Johannesburg – here are some good reasons why it should work (and isn’t a problem for us as residents).

This letter is in response to a column by Ivo Vegter. Recycling is “the right thing to do”! One can add any number of exclamation marks after that comment depending on who you are having the conversation with. A better question to ask is “Is recycling bad or a wrong thing to do?” I don’t proclaim to be an expert in recycling, but have exposure to the industry as a result of my career. I used to drive to the local glass and paper depot. However, life became busy. I recycle when it is easy. The definition of easy is: Can I put the bag with recyclables on the curb? I don’t like to sort it, as I get confused. Can I put a magazine in if it has staples in, what about all the different types of plastic? The Johannesburg system that I am exposed to is very simple. Pikitup clear plastic bags are dropped in the street every week. We get a bag for every bag that we fill. The images on the bag clearly state what is allowed in the bag. Everything from small electronic equipment(broken toaster, computer etc) through to the usual suspects – paper, plastic (all types) and glass. This has been in operation since I moved to Johannesburg 6 years ago. At least 8 out of 10 households in the street use the bags. No one pays for this service. I imagine that this was a pilot for the roll out planned in July 2018. I am an engineer and a shareholder in a group that is responsible for business development. We identify economically sustainable opportunities or businesses in difficulty. A new or detailed business plan is developed and we initiate/resurrect the business. There is really only one way a business is successful it must make money – every day, every year and be able to grow and expand. Recently I was given the opportunity to evaluate a business in the recycling industry (primarily focused on plastic). This has given me a better understanding of the economic drivers behind the growth in the industry. These may be complex but essentially the recycling industry must make money to be sustainable. Plastic pellets of various types are typically R10,000 per ton when imported. At the lowest level goods collected by the waste pickers/collectors is around R1-R2/ kg or R1,000-R2,000 per ton. The difference has to cover capital costs and labour, from receipt back into a small plastic pellet (think cat pellets in size). One of the biggest expenses is the cost to landfill material that is unsuited for recycling during the sorting process (it is too dirty and smelly). The other killer in the recycling industry is the cost of logistics. Your household waste goes to a sorting facility. It is separated into different product streams. This site will have conveyor belts and baling machines and vehicles. The bales are taken to specific product companies (each type of plastic potentially goes to a different place). The plastic recycler converts this plastic into pellets. The pellets are sold to converters who turn this back into products (garden chairs, new cooldrink bottles, plastic benches etc). One of the biggest problems is the contamination of the goods that go to the sorting facility. If it is full of food scraps, oil, sauces, old tissues and other household items then it is degraded. You can’t recycle a Pronutro cardboard box if it has gone soggy and no one can tell what is on it. If the waste is dirty it has to go to landfill. On the other hand, yes we have a lot of land and could build new landfill sites. However these may well be further away from the residential source of the rubbish. The garbage trucks will have to travel further and then Johannesburg Municipality will have to buy more trucks to cover the area in the same time and pay more for fuel.  Sorting the waste at source – you and I having two rubbish bins – means that Johannesburg can in the long run reduce operating costs or at the least not see a disproportionate increase. The recycling industry can receive with cleaner input material, reducing their costs and increasing their profitability. The recycling industry can also expand, resulting in an increase in employment opportunities. The country will have a reduction in imports (more pellets produced locally)with a concomitant improvement in balance of payments. I would rather sort at source than suddenly have to pay higher rates and refuse collection fees to open a new landfill site. DM Gina Schroeder is involved in Venture Capital and Project Development, FTech Group of Companies