Straws suck … it’s a more catchy title than ‘Save the Planet’.

Recycling in Joburg 

Recyclers heaving huge loads for long distances up the steep hills of Joburg. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse













A couple of years ago I wrote about recycling, a post which focused primarily on the working circumstances of the informal recyclers in parts of Johannesburg.  Very gradually, and way too slowly it seems, the general public is waking up to the terrible problems that South Africa, and indeed the planet faces, with the amount of non-biodegradable wastage.  While the recyclers here in Jozi do an amazing job (both paid private companies and the informal sector) and Pikitup is now growing its recycling initiative, none of this is nearly enough.

Global scenario on recycling of plastic waste

Below, in graph form, is the dismal projected scenario in 2050 showing the difference between waste produced and waste recycled and incinerated. (Incineration brings with it a whole set of problems around air pollution). This is at current rate of production and disposal. 


A 2017 study projected that if current global use patterns and waste management trends continue, by 2050 the world will have recycled 9 billion metric tons (9,000 million metric tons) of plastic waste, incinerated 12 billion metric tons and discarded 12 billion metric tons in landfills or the natural environment. Geyer et al., Science Advances, July 19, 2017, CC BY-NC

China: Dumping Ground of the World

The US recycles only 9% of its plastics, compared to Europe which recycles 30%.  So what happens to the rest?  The majority of waste plastic still winds up in landfills or in the oceans and the rest gets exported to China. Yes, I kid you not – China is the world’s largest importer and recycler of scrap metals, plastic and paper.   In 2012 nearly 1/2 the plastic waste that Americans sent abroad for recycling and about 1/3 of the European Union’s plastic waste exports, was sent to China. According to one 2014 study, China received 56% (in weight) of global scrap plastic exports. 

Data from UN Comtrade Database. Color indicates sum of value in U.S. dollars; size indicates sum of weight in kilograms.  Source: Kate O’Neill, CC BY-ND


China with its population of  1.4 odd billion and its rapid economic development is very aware of the problems of pollution and environmental degradation.  It recycles 22% of its domestic and international scrap ie about 13.6 million metric tons.  Although this is way more than the US recycles, it still means that a lot of the scrap plastic is not recycled, plus some is recycled under hazardous conditions. So again, much ends up in landfills and in the oceans.

Stay at Liz at Lancaster Guest House

Stay at our well located Guest House and experience Johannesburg. View our Johannesburg Guest House for Rates and Availability!

I find it extraordinary that the United States do not deal with their own wastage.  America has not built a sophisticated new plastics recycling facility since 2003, and few of the existing plants can cope with recycling the often dirty, used plastics.  And this wealthy nation of conspicuous consumers will have their recycling problem exacerbated as, in April 2017, China introduced reforms to cut back on the quality (and so amount) of plastic wastage it would accept.  

The only people we can change are ourselves 

While we can’t change governments or large corporations, by changing our own practices, influencing children from a young age, and talking to those around us, we can start changing perceptions in small ways.  Here are 10 things we can do.  This article contains frightening figures on plastic pollution. And below: 9 EASY tips for living with less plastic. 

#Reuse #Strawssuck #lessplastic #savetheplanet #returntoglass



















Our neighbourhood restaurant, Dolci (walking distance from Liz at Lancaster), is selling the most amazing bamboo cups which look and feel like plastic but aren’t, and, of course, they are fully recyclable.  Plus their water is bought in returnable glass bottles – Yay! Retro rules.   (Although Joburg tap water is completely potable). 

Cup made from bamboo – fully recycable, from our fabulous neighbourhood restaurant Dolci. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Dolci’s returnable glass bottles. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

From medical I.V. bags to soles for school-shoes

Learner at  Tswelopele Primary School School receiving a pair of shoes

A very exciting recycling project has been launched between Adcock Ingram Critical Care; Netcare; Executive Mayor, Councillor Herman Mashaba; and the City of Johannesburg.  Safe healthcare waste from hospitals is being recycled to produce functional new products, including school shoes for disadvantaged children. Non-hazardous intravenous infusion (I.V.) drip bags and tubing made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are recycled into soles for school shoes. At the end of January this year approximately 1, 000 school shoes were handed over to learners of the Masakhane-Tswelopele Primary School in Zandspruit by Mayor Mashaba.  

Blue Planet II  

David Attenborough has done a lot to bring people’s attention to the dire state of plastic pollution in our oceans.  Animals in distress evoke visceral empathetic responses in people, and Attenborough’s  powerful images, carefully chosen soundtrack and emotive commentary on the grieving mother pilot whale who will not part with her dead calf, is certainly no exception.  

So take up a plastic cause … any one. Like #StrawsSuck – a great poster from our very own Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. And tell our young children why they suck. … Please.  We are not proud of what the so-called wise older generation has done to the world. We have a lot to ‘make right’. 

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One thought on “Straws suck … it’s a more catchy title than ‘Save the Planet’.

  1. A detailed and considered response from somebody who ran Packaging SA (directly involved in recycling issues) for 7 years:
    I agree with a lot of what you say but I do worry that often we focus on one element of the problem without the facts and not getting the big picture , so here are a few scrambled thoughts:
    1. We tend to focus on packaging waste as it is visible but in my book a more pressing issue is organic waste for two reasons
    *The volumes are significantly bigger
    *Organic waste (food etc.) breaks down into methane which is a greenhouse gas 21 times as potent as Carbon dioxide. In a 10 year old study in the UK consumers threw away 6 million tons of food (30% of what they bought) of which 4,9 million was fine to eat. Surely humanity can find a way of dealing with that sort of behaviour.
    Much of the packaging waste in landfill is far less damaging than other components of the waste stream.
    An observation here is that it is often environmentally better to use more packaging (such as the thin plastic used to protect and prolong fruit and vegetable shelf life) than to discard the plastic and increase the waste.
    2. What about electronic waste and in particular computers and cellphones? These devices use many rare earth materials (including some gold) and their recycling rates are pathetic.
    3. Ash from the coal power stations when I last looked was 32 million tons per annum –very little of which is recycled ( a large part of the 100 million tons plus of solid waste we produce every year in SA of which packaging to landfill is less than 2%)
    4. The US not surprisingly is one of the worst recyclers in the developed world but in my view that is rather typical of their throw away, superficial society.
    5. A very large proportion of European and US plastic waste was exported to China, bolstering the European recycling figures (30% you quote includes exports to China) but China has banned plastic imports from the beginning of 2018. The UK has not developed local recycling of plastics to any degree. I could never understand their short term approach and in SA very little of our packaging and paper waste is exported for processing overseas.
    6. I think that our story in SA is worth mentioning because we have achieved quite a lot in the past few decades. Much still to do. To name a few
    • There are a number of industry driven recycling initiatives in SA that have really achieved. Packaging SA (which I ran for about 7 years after leaving Nampak) works with individual material stream bodies (such as paper plastic and glass) with the following intentions:
    *to grow diversion from landfill in SA for all material streams in the packaging sector
    * to develop accurate statistics on our performance in this area
    *to communicate these results to Government. We delivered a comprehensive Industry waste management plan to Govt in 2011, including inter alia an industry levy to fund recycling initiatives – after four years they hadn’t done anything.
    *to co-ordinate activities within the recycling sector
    To summarise our results , in 2016 we diverted away from landfill 76% of all first time paper (incl. books newspapers etc.) and packaging put on the market in that year. This number has been steadily growing over the past 15 years. A breakdown is below and it contains all the elements of the 4 Rs waste hierarchy:
    *reduce – 252 000 tons avoided from previous year (weight reduction)
    *re-use – 2,53 million tons (returnable beer bottles , plastic crates etc)
    *recycle – 2,22 million tons. 57% of all first time packaging.
    *recover not known (burning as fuel is power plants etc).
    It still leaves 24% which has to be dealt with. If you want to understand this better go to page 16 of the design for recycling booklet (see below)
    *One of my last tasks at Packaging SA was to develop a comprehensive “design for recycling” book that helped designers create packaging that was recycling friendly for SA conditions. It is very comprehensive but the search engine takes designers quickly to the product they are thinking of. As far as I know it is the only document in the world that covers all types of packaging. I suggest you have a look at it – go to the packaging SA website (packagingsa) and get into design for recycling. It is a real problem for some products and to illustrate take chips as an example. Remember when we were young it was fairly common to buy chips that were stale. This is not often now as multi-layer plastic completely seals the product off from outside but the packaging which also weighs nothing is a problem.
    7. No doubt you will be saying so what? We still have a plastic mountain that is choking our seas etc. Absolutely this is correct but much of that is from littering and the plastic gets there from either the rivers , beaches or off ships and fishing tackle such as nets and longlines. A recent study showed that a huge % of marine plastic litter came from 10 rivers mainly in the developing world (none from Sub Saharan Africa ) so I am not sure whether banning plastic bottles in Europe for example will fix the problem.
    8. So , there are of course many things we need as a society to do
    * the big one is to stop littering
    * get extended producer responsibility firmly ingrained. That means whoever puts the product onto the market is responsible for it including its disposal. *the environmental cost of a product must be built into the selling price so that those that are problematic will hopefully outprice themselves vs better products.
    9. I am not at all saying you should not do the things you mention – of course you should. Also please separate your domestic waste into two separate bags – packaging and paper and other to ensure a better collection model as Pikitup are trying to do (the packagingSA model).
    10. As a matter of interest I will follow up with contacts in the recycling industry on the coffee cup you refer to . It is a good idea but I wonder what % is actually recycled in SA. My guess way, way below 15% as the market is so tiny and the fibre (imported) so different that probably very limited interest from the recycling community. Sorry, rather take your own cup

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