Abridged conference paper as presented at WasteCon 2014, Somerset West.

In recent years, waste management has undergone a paradigm shift. Previously, it was seen as a transport and logistics operation, where big trucks picked up garbage from homes and factories and took it outside the town and dumped it in a hole in the ground. This ‘hump ‘n dump’  approach has fallen from favour. Landfills are now filling up or are full. Environmental and social concerns are on the rise. This includes putting reusable waste materials to work in reducing pollution and increasing job creation. Companies (and communities) are having to take greater responsibility for their part in dealing with the waste their products (and purchasing choices) generate. Recycling has come to the fore.

National government has reacted in various ways, passing  legislation that requires municipalities to provide recycling services to householders.  Yet most municipal solid waste departments are staffed by engineers whose backgrounds often lack experience or understanding of the recycling business and the social behaviour issues involved in making a success of separation-at-source programmes.

In essence, these programmes are concerned with managing the transfer of a ‘free’ commodity – domestic recyclable waste –  from a public utility to a private commercial contractor whose business model is dependent on optimum quantities of the commodity being supplied through the voluntary participation of residents. A complex system indeed which needs careful implementation and management.

Research  project

PlasticsSA has a mission of zero plastic waste to landfill by 2030. In pursuance of this goal, the organisation funded research into what is working and what isn’t in at-source recycling amongst a number of Western Cape municipalities in a project initiated and undertaken by GreenEdge Communications. Its outcomes pointed to a focus on public education for participation and on the relationship between municipality and the recycling contractor.

After discussions with Western Cape government waste management department,  the selected municipalities’ waste management officers  were contacted and interviewed. The interviews included a structured set of questions and some unstructured discussion on what was particular to that municipality. Brief summaries of their responses are outlined in alphabetical order below.

The majority of the separation-at-source programmes researched in the study require residents to sort their waste into two bags for kerbside collection – black bag for ‘wet’ materials, ( i.e all food-contaminated or otherwise non-recyclable waste which the municipality takes to landfill) and ‘dry’ (or plastic, tins, paper and glass which is collected by the contractor and then sorted and sold on for re-processing.)

The kerbside services are aimed at residents in middle and upper-income suburbs. This is because their higher disposable  income and purchasing results in greater volumes of recyclable items, mostly packaging.  In lower-cost housing areas and informal settlements, a variety of community-based and non-profit initiatives operate buy-backs centres and  swop-shops in which the  municipalities are not directly involved.

 Bergrivier Municipality

The Bergrivier Municipality on the West Coast includes Piketberg, Velddrif and Porterville. Householders separate into three bags – clear for recyclables, green for garden trimmings and black for refuse.  Greens go to the landfill as cover material, while recyclables are collected by a contractor and taken to a simple materials recovery facility (MRF) owned and operated by the contractor, sorted manually and baled for transport to Cape Town.

The service is currently available to some 8,500 households.  Public education for recycling has been done through schools, leaflets in post boxes and community newspapers.   The participation rate amongst households averages 20%.

 City of Cape Town Municipality

Cape Town is the largest municipality in the Western Cape with some 830 000  formal households. After a round of pilots, their programme was branded as  “Think Twice” and rolled out to be implemented by contractors in selected groups of middle and upper income suburbs.

Tender specifications were tightened to include  a  R300 000 minimum budget  per contract towards public education and behaviour change. A minimum household participation rate  was also set for the contractor, below which financial penalties would apply.  Recyclables collected at kerbside are taken to the City’s large MRF at Kraaifontein to be sorted by technical means and by hand.

Contractors are required to produce and distribute educational leaflets to householders and place adverts in community newspapers following the City’s branding guidelines.

By 2011, over 120 000 households were receiving kerbside collections. Currently the overall average participation rate is estimated by the municipality at more than 60% of households.

 Drakenstein Municipality

Drakenstein Municipality includes Paarl and Wellington  with some 40 000 households. Kerbside recycling began in 2011and now serves 10,700 households. Public education and behaviour change marketing has been managed by an outside service provider through information leaflets and fridge reminder cards to householders with feedback and articles on progress in the local newspaper.

Initially a private contractor operated her own  vehicle for collections and also managed the municipal-owned MRF. When the contract ended, the municipality took over and brought in EPWP (Extended Public Works Programme)  workers  to assist with collections and operating the MRF.  At present household participation averages 24%.

George Local Municipality

George is the largest town on the Southern Cape coast with some 43 000 households. Kerbside recycling collections are done by a contractor who follows the daily beats of the municipal refuse truck through the suburbs, collecting bags of recyclables and swopping for fresh ones. Bags are taken to the contractor’s recovery facility, sorted by hand, and baled for transport to Cape Town.

A blue bag for recyclables together with an educational pamphlet is delivered to all houses by the contractor. Those wanting the service get in touch with the municipality who informs the contractor from which houses to collect.  The contractor also places articles in the local newspaper to encourage residents to join in.  An estimated 6 000 households or 14% are currently using the service.

Knysna Local Municipality

One of seven in the Eden District Municipality, Knysna municipality  is mainly a tourism resort and retirement area and includes Sedgefield, Karatara and Buffels Bay. Households number some  22,000. Separation-at-source recycling began in 1989 when residents started their own system, taking recyclable materials to a  centre in the town run by a local recycling company. Collection of recyclables was later  taken over by the municipality.

Public education is activated through local media, with information on progress and achievements. The percentage of households participating is estimated at 55%.

Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay includes Hartenbos, Little Brak River, and Great Brak River. In 2011, households numbered 28,025. The municipality launched separation-at-source kerbside recycling in 2005.  Householders are given blue bags for recycling which a private recycling company collects from kerbside and takes to its own sorting plant.

There is no tender contract with the recycling company, but a council decision allows the company to be paid the equivalent of the value of air space saved at the local landfill by the recycling diversion.

The kerbside collection service is available to over 25, 000 households, of whom 13% on average participate.

 Overstrand Municipality

Overstrand Municipality includes Hermanus, Kleinmond, Stanford and Gansbaai. Households number some 31 800. A private company initially began recycling and since 2004 a two- bag collection system has been run by the municipality.  Bags are transported to two sorting facilities owned by the municipality and managed on contract by a recycling company.

One operates by manual sorting while the other is  a MRF with a  conveyor. Next to it, on land leased from the municipality, a buy-back centre is run by the contractor which services the nearby lower-income community.

In November before the holiday season, an educational leaflet is posted to owners/ratepayers.  Municipal staff also hand out bags and leaflets if the house is occupied or has a post box.  Articles in the local newspaper and leaflets in rates bills encourage participation, as do promotions at schools and the annual Whale Festival.

Permanent residents’ participation rates average 55 to 60%.  Participation increases in season when most houses are occupied.

Stellenbosch Local Municipality

Stellenbosch is the second largest municipality in the Western Cape. At the 2011 census, there were just over 43,000 households. The municipality began its own small separation-at-source kerbside collection programme in 2011.  Minimal budget, staff and equipment was allocated to it, so it has run on a low-key basis thus far.

Residents joining  the programme are provided with clear bags at municipal offices, where a database of names and addresses for collection is kept. Some bags of recyclables are taken to a home for mentally-challenged people, who sort and sell the recyclables for their own upkeep while the balance is transported to City of Cape Town’s   Kraaifontein MRF,  25km from Stellenbosch.

The municipality is planning an upgrade of the separation-at-source system aiming at a purpose-built MRF and best practice principles.

Witzenberg District Municipality

Located  in the central Western Cape,  the main towns in the district municipality  are Ceres, Wolseley, and Tulbagh. The estimated number of households is 16 500.

Three bags can be put out for kerbside collection – black for refuse, green for garden waste and clear bag for source-separated recyclables. The municipality picks up the first two while a contractor collects the recyclables for sorting at its own MRF.

Public awareness and education is done by the municipality and is outsourced. Schools are also involved in waste and recycling education programmes. The kerbside collection programme is estimated at diverting some 3,500 tons per annum or 18% away from landfill.


Responses from this qualitative research project show municipalities in different localities dealing with a variety of public/private relationships and systems that rely on a range of factors for success.

Most important among these is encouraging optimum recycling participation from householders. To achieve this, the supporting infrastructure systems should make it as convenient as possible through, for example, the provision of free bags and weekly same-day  kerbside collection of recyclables and easy separation-at-source,  namely the  wet/dry, two-bag requirement.

In addition, a thorough, ongoing educational and behaviour change programme aimed at those communities to whom the service is being provided is vital. This can often be downgraded as a ‘soft’ option, but successful municipalities realise that adequate emphasis and budget for this component is a necessary inclusion in the terms of reference for tenders.

Also important is a supportive relationship between municipality and recycling contractor to assist with the economic viability of the programme. Contractors who are able to bring knowledge and experience of the recycling industry in general are valuable  partners.

Separation-at-source recycling is best seen as an interlinking set of different  elements which need to be in harmony for it to work best. Greatest efficiencies arise from understanding the elements of a programme as a whole system.

The research and responses have brought to light insights and practices that can be put to use elsewhere. In all, they fill a gap in current knowledge, assisting diversion and recovery of valuable re-usable materials while supporting the long-term aim of zero waste to landfill.

Author: Hugh Tyrrell, GreenEdge Communications, Cape Town



Thanks to PlasticsSA and their Sustainability Council who sponsored the research, the Western Cape Directorate of Waste Management, and the time and input of the municipalities and officials.