Recycling in Cape Town: The disappointing truth
Updated: Jun 18
Author: CAITLIN HANKOCKS
“By 2019 one quarter of Cape Town’s waste will be recycled” said an aspiring local government a few years ago. Later, they quietly dropped that target to 20% and now, with the City of Cape Town’s 2017 record recycling rate of less than two percent, it seems that daring vision may be abandoned altogether.
AT THE RECYCLING PLANT
Cape Town’s dump trucks congregate just off the N1 at the Kraaifontein Integrated Waste Management Facility. There workers sift bare-handed through the fetid cargo: tearing bags and chucking any recyclables onto the conveyor belt. Twenty women stoop over the nauseatingly fast belt, frantically picking out soda bottles and bits of paper from the stream of shopping bags, filthy food containers, glass shards and pink diaries. Not surprisingly, many of the recyclables are missed and cascade into a heap destined for landfill. Those fortunate materials that are salvaged from the sea of putrid rubbish plunge down chutes to the warehouse floor. Clear PET bottles are shredded to snow, dirty ones are tied into bales. Certain colours of glass are crushed in a grinder while dry paper and cardboard are sorted from the wet, and cans are compressed into large cuboids. Only glass and steel are re-manufactured locally.
BEYOND OUR SHORES
The bulk of the recyclable waste is crammed into containers headed for China (it’s cheaper than transporting them to Gauteng!) where demand is high and costs low; mirroring the lax environmental and safety regulations.
At least this was the case until until this January, when China ruled that caustic rain and brain-damaged children outweigh the benefits of cheap, second-hand feed stock for manufacture, enacting the Green Fence Operation, requiring waste-importing countries clean up their act to exactly 0.5% contaminant levels.
Thousands of containers have been snubbed in Hong Kong and sent sailing home to be land-filled, incinerated, or locked in warehouses for better times.
Waste plans contracted by the city to collect recyclables and run the Kraaifontein facility are barely breaking even. Plant Manager Johan van Rooyen worries that “We have secured alternative domestic markets for plastics, metal and glass, but not cardboard… Cardboard accounts for 65% of our recyclables. Currently the only alternative market to China is India, but it is flooded with unwanted European scrap that have plunged the prices to pennies. If no favourable change occurs within the next two months, we will have to landfill (prolonged storage of recyclables has a very high fire risk)’’.
It seems that the city’s crude methods will struggle to maintain last year’s meager recycling rates after losing its biggest buyer.
Land-filling most materials is currently the most affordable (at R440/Ton) and is regarded as an environmentally friendly option. Cape Town’s dumps meet first world standards, featuring waterproof lining to prevent toxic leachate runoff and methane capture for use as gas. While the ever-growing city may not have space for its waste in the future, others will, and an incremental rise in transport costs will hardly make recycling (R1300/T approx.) preferable.
Despite the green-washing and pledges by political entities, the recycling rates of practically every product can be predetermined by the Sherwood plot: if an item falls above the line it will be recycled, if not, it will be dumped.
The graph compares the value of the materials used to the degree of material mixing present. Justifying why a simple aluminium can is more likely to be recycled than a complex phone, although it contains five times the concentration of gold. Or why glass, pure as it is, has low recycling rates, sand is not a dear commodity.
Irrational fears that Cape Town will “run out of airspace by 2023”, have prompted lavish investment in landfill alternatives. Yet, instead of installing Japanese plastic pyrolysis plants that are hopelessly expensive (indeed, the plant is now defunct) we should be implementing Japanese and German inspired laws that recognise that the throw-away society of consumers is not the problem; it is simply a symptom of a dictating, linear economy.
Manufacturers are not held accountable to the disposal of their product; their vision is limited to its use, the shorter the better. Planned obsolescence is how producers ensure steady profits. Products are designed to make reuse, repair, or recycling as difficult as possible. For manufacturers waste makes money. For the city and its tax-paying people it costs - exactly R2bn of waste management fees were recorded for 2017 and that is excluding the incalculable costs of replacing those materials.
Throwing trash down a hole isn’t the problem; digging new mines, cutting down trees and draining rivers to get new replacement products is.