By Hugh Tyrrell and Martin Schneider

Recycling cape townFirst published in Cape Argus, Friday 7 April 2017

Our vulnerability to dwindling natural resources is hitting home. Look no further than Cape Town. Citizens there are in a race against time to save as much water as possible in the hope that winter rainfall will be more plentiful than last year when poor rains left the region’s dams almost half empty. Close on 4 million people are now looking up at the heavens and wondering what will come first: rain or empty dams.

With climate change set to make South Africa hotter and drier and a growing population requiring increasing volumes of water, conserving and re-using this precious resource clearly needs to become part of our daily routine at home, work and play.

The same applies to other valuable resources, including one that too many of us simply throw away. This is waste. Manufacturing of products ranging from packaging to containers, electronic devices, appliances and batteries consumes vast amounts of natural resources: much more water, millions of trees, countless barrels of oil and tonnes of coal and metals.

When no longer needed, we stuff packaging and containers with kitchen and other waste into black bags which the municipality picks up and dumps in ever growing landfills, incurring significant costs to ratepayers and creating environmental and health hazards in areas which could be more productively used for human settlement and urban agriculture.

Government’s recently released National Pricing Strategy for Waste Management (NPSWM) estimates that South Africa annually generates 108 million tonnes of waste, of which 90% is disposed of in municipal landfills. Diverting this waste from landfills and recycling it could generate up to R25.2 billion a year for the economy, says the NPSWM.

Accurate, up-to-date statistics on the level of recycling are hard to come by, but a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research study conducted for the Department of Science and Technology estimates that by 2011 only 11% of waste diverted from landfill was recycled.

“Recycling figures vary for the different waste streams, from less than 20% for tyres, plastic and electrical and electronic equipment to in excess of 80% for metals and batteries,” says the NPSWM. “By international standards, certain waste streams generated in South Africa have achieved encouraging levels of recycling through voluntary programmes, while other waste streams are lagging behind that of other developed and developing countries.”

The NPSWM is a further move by government to support increased recycling. It proposes greater implementation of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) concept which is used internationally as an environmental protection strategy. EPR makes manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products, including supporting their post-consumer recovery and recycling.

To their enduring credit, a number of industry associations have long been pro-active by supporting extensive, voluntary EPR initiatives, such as those covering the paper, plastic, glass and metal can industries. However, these initiatives tend to focus on recovering, sorting and baling waste in preparation for recycling. The missing link in the chain is the consumer.

Let’s focus on behaviour change

If we are serious about increasing recycling rates and diverting high-value consumer waste from landfills over the longer term, we need greater focus on changing consumer behaviour. Education and awareness campaigns have been undertaken in the past by government, manufacturers and industry associations, though these have often been sporadic and uncoordinated.

Experience from a number of campaigns in which I have been involved has taught me that education and awareness alone rarely lead to behaviour change. Separating out ‘dry‘ recyclable items at home – so-called separation-at-source – and securing them in transparent bags which are then placed on the curbside for collection once-a-week, every week can work well and needs to become the social norm. Communities must want to say with pride: “That’s just what we do around here!”

Effective behaviour change programmes that are sustained over the longer term are interactive. They go way beyond explaining the benefits of recycling and what items are recyclable; they also provide regular feedback to participants, such as how much is being recycled, what products are being made from waste, and what resource, energy and other savings are being achieved. They use local channels and media.

Interestingly, behaviour change programmes contain many touch points that household brands and retailers look for when deciding to sponsor socially- and environmentally-responsible causes. These include:

  • The brand’s products and packaging are usually recyclable, so it’s easier to take the next step and become involved in promoting their responsible recovery, recycling and re-use.
  • Behaviour change programmes have ways for the company and brand to interact directly with consumers and communities.
  • Messaging and materials bearing brand and company logos enter and remain visible in the homes of consumers. Think fridge magnets.
  • The company and brand is strongly and directly associated with environmental education and action, healthy neighbourhoods and natural resource conservation.
  • Sponsoring behaviour change programmes supports expansion of the recycling industry, economic growth and importantly, job creation.

Opportunities are opening for brands and retailers to get involved in helping municipalities to raise recycling rates through effective behaviour change marketing and promotion. This is especially the case when they are starting out with separation-at-source curbside collections, or if recovery rates are low and need a boost.

Faced with landfills having to cope with more and more waste and the prospect of substantial capital expenditure in establishing new sites, many municipalities are keen to introduce or extend recycling collections – especially those with a good chance of getting substantial volumes out of the suburbs and back into the remanufacturing stream.

However, adequate budgets are not always forthcoming, nor is specialist expertise. The right brands and their partners have a valuable role to play in helping make this happen.

Hugh Tyrrell is the director of GreenEdge Communications which works with government, non-profits and companies to raise participation in recycling programmes.