South Africa: Recycling is About So Much More Than Waste #AfricaClimateCrisis

Millions of waste pickers and reclaimers around the world search through disposed of goods in dumpsites, and landfills for valuable recyclable materials that many consider worthless.

Some search for necessities, while others collect to recycle, and sell to recycling warehouses or recycling plants. They operate and collect either from neighborhood streets, door-to-door or waste collection points.

Recyclers play an important role in helping manage an integrated waste management system by stopping waste from entering landfills. According to the World Bank, “waste pickers are the principal actors in reclaiming waste for the recycling industry. Across the world, large numbers of people from low-income and disadvantaged communities make a living collecting and sorting waste and then selling reclaimed waste through intermediaries to the recycling industry. Where others see trash or garbage, the waste pickers see paper, cardboard, glass, and metal. They are skilled at sorting and bundling different types of waste by colour, weight, and end use to sell to the recycling industry. Yet waste pickers are rarely recognised for the important role they play in creating value from the waste generated by others and in contributing to the reduction of carbon emissions.”

Catherina Schenck, a University of the Western Cape professor in South Africa in her 2018 research on waste pickers said that the country generated about 54,425 tonnes a day of waste and about R17 billion worth of waste goes to landfill every year, and remain uncollected for reuse or recycling. She investigated ten landfill sites in the Western Cape region. According to Engineering News, Schenck has shown that waste picking provides between 60,000 and 90,000 informal self-employment opportunities in South Africa.

Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) figures show that South Africans generate at least 122 million tonnes of waste per year, and only 10% is recycled or recovered for other uses, while at least 90% goes to landfill or is dumped illegally. This poses a great environmental risk. The World Bank reports that “uncollected waste and poorly disposed waste have significant health and environmental impacts. The cost of addressing these impacts is many times higher than the cost of developing and operating simple, adequate waste management systems. Even though the country is still generating large amounts of waste annually, recyclers and the waste management industry are slowly evolving and diverting recyclables from landfills.”

Chad Cuddumbey, a 31-year-old young entrepreneur from Cape Town, started an organisation to create, awareness, and promote aquaponics and alternative food growing systems for garden projects that support food security. The father of a two-year-old is the founder of a non-profit organisation, New Earth Aquaponics.

“Due to my experience in the local recycling industry, having a business, and learning about the industry from the ground level made me aware of the organic waste recycling market and how it works. Literally sorting through mixed recycling dirt bags from commercial nurseries where the waste was “contaminated” meaning it would probably not be recycled because it’s all mixed up in the recycling bag and not separated rendering it landfill waste. This is because of contamination of recycling materials such as plastics, paper, glass, and tin with organic waste materials such as plants, sand, soil, and trees,” he said.

‘Waste hierarchy’

In many cases, people struggle to build good recycling habits because they are unaware of what is and is not recyclable. In order to live a sustainable life, people should be educated on the waste hierarchy, commonly referred to as the “three R’s” of waste management. Implementing the three R’s – reduce, reuse, and recycle – helps to cut down the amount of waste we produce.

Cuddumbey’s experience has given him the skills to recycle organic waste to further prolong its value and benefit himself and others via the collection and sorting of organic waste from commercial plant nurseries. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, he partnered with local nurseries where all recycled organic waste materials is recycled to benefit community projects, he adds.

Does recycling reduce emissions?

There is a growing concern as the effects of the climate emergency are being felt around the world, but many fail to realise that both climate change and waste affect each other, either directly or indirectly. Cuddumbey says that “climate change is a complex topic but recycling and sustainable organic waste recycling management will benefit our environments as our landfills are at capacity and it’s not the best management solution in the first place as many factors arise contributing to climate change. Diverting recycling waste and organic waste from landfills is extremely important to reduce greenhouse emissions.”

Project Drawdown, a non-profit group that conducts reviews of climate solutions, estimates that recycling between 2020 and 2050 will reduce emissions by 5.5-6.02 gigatons of carbon dioxide (equivalent to taking over 1 billion cars off the streets for one year). That is a major reduction from a simple lifestyle change, which makes recycling an effective, yet easy change to make to help curb greenhouse gas emissions and help limit the climate crisis, reports the University of Colorado Environmental Center, Be Boulder.

Recycling helps to mitigate the climate crisis by reducing the amount of raw materials used and by reducing landfill waste. However, many challenges come with waste management systems. Most significantly, the dumping of food waste and other waste in landfills contributes to methane emissions which is much more damaging than carbon dioxide but is also a potential source of energy. When items pile up in landfills, an anaerobic decomposition process takes place that methane. But by embracing composting and recycling, we can better reduce these effects in landfills.

World Environment Day is celebrated on June 5 every year to raise awareness about environmental issues. The theme of this year’s campaign was #OnlyOneEarth with the emphasis on living sustainably in harmony with nature. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, climate change, nature loss, biodiversity loss, pollution, and waste are all signs of Earth going into “code red.”

Cuddumbey went on to describe some of the challenges young innovators face in the recycling sector. “There are many challenges facing our young innovators. It’s not an easy task or economically viable solution to enter any recycling sector as it’s an extremely volatile industry as well as an under-regulated industry. The young and all people need more investment in waste management infrastructure and regulations that allows recycling solutions to thrive. We need more funding for recycling awareness, education, and its benefits for us as individuals as well as in our communities. He added, “with the right communication, collaboration, partnership, investment into proper infrastructure, and idea management I believe we will be able to use waste to build and empower all to create sustainable growth development practices for us all and the entire ecosystem.”

Through the New Earth Aquaponics, Cuddumbey has been able to donate to many amazing communities and people who are skilled at growing food but don’t receive support from their community or the government. “I have donated once-off to many projects as well as continuous donations to specific projects … such as organisations, informal communities, and primary schools where we provide organic soil, seedlings, and plants to support and help create sustainable food security gardens. This experience has made me realise that with the proper experience, awareness, and execution food security is possible by creating sustainable organic recycling processes everywhere. We will be able to grow sustainably as well as recycle so that it benefits us economically as well as protects our environment and creates abundance for all.

“Recycling should be a part of every aspect of our lives as it is a part of nature, it is an empowerment tool. If we respect recycling and follow sustainable practices for our planet we will all create a better future for all,” said Cuddumbey.