From zero to 80kg in two months

This is a step by step overview of how we went about starting a small scale recycling project in Crossroads, Cape Town.

Step 1. Starting out simple

To keep things clean and simple, we asked people to collect only white paper and beverage packaging that could be easily rinsed (plastic bottles, aluminum cans, glass bottles). We chose PET because of all plastic, PET has the most value (R2 a kilo). But I didn’t realise that not all PET marked with a #1 symbol is recyclable. So I changed the instructions leaflet to encourage people to ignore numbers/symbols. Instead look for the ‘nib,’ a noticeable mound of plastic found on the underside of packaging, which is the only way to tell if it is recyclable. No nib, no good. 

The way to tell of a bottle is made from PET is to turn it upside down and look for the ‘nib’

Step 2. Storage  

Although not all of the items we are collecting need to be stored inside, the sight of piles of rubbish Although not all of the items we are collecting need to be stored inside, the sight of piles of rubbish was considered unlikely to inspire a sense of caring for the environment. Firstly, the sight of refuse bags tends to be interpreted by people as an invitation to add any and all rubbish to the pile. Secondly, theft of/from bags of recycling is a known issue. Thanks to GCRF funding, we were able to buy a ‘one tripper’ so called because the shipping container has done only one trip at sea and is therefore in good condition. This doubled as a space to sort the items that we collected on days when it was too windy to do it outside, thus avoiding lightweight plastic blowing away and littering the nearby streets. 

A newly delivered ‘one tripper’ shipping container in the grounds of Eluvukweni church, ready to store the first bags of recyclables

Step 3. Collection 

It quickly became clear that hiking a bag of recyclables to church was easier said than done. Plastic It quickly became clear that hiking a bag of recyclables to church was easier said than done. Many people come to church on public transport, such as a crowded minibus taxi, and fellow passengers do not appreciate a big bag of plastic invading their space. Plastic bottles are lightweight, which is why so many things are made from PET plastic, and what makes them easy to carry. However, they are also very bulky because without an industrial strength crusher, it is difficult to get all of the air out. The other problem is that the most convenient way to collect plastic bottles is in plastic bags – the very thing we are trying not to use so much of. Ours are made from recycled plastic donated by Plastics SA. 

Plastic bottles in plastic bags: Each full bag has about 50 bottles which need to be sorted

Step 3. Sorting

RecyRecycling involves a lot of unpaid labour. In addition to the work of cleaning and carrying bottles to the container each week, it then needs to be crushed and divided according to the requirements of the buyer. Finding a company willing to collect recyclables was difficult because of high levels of crime in the area. We used Blue Sky Recycling who were the only organisation willing to pick up what we collected from our location in Crossroads. It is often assumed that starting a recycling scheme will create jobs, but although there is a lot of work involved, it is difficult to generate an income that anyone could live off because items are worth so little. The only enterprises that can pay people a small salary are those that operate at a large scale. In contrast, this project took a different tack where volunteers participated in the scheme as part of fundraising efforts of the church. 

MaterialSouth African RandBritish Pounds
Aluminium cansR630p
Clear PET plastic R210p
Plastic bottle caps, liner removedR15p
Green PET plastic R15p
Brown PET plastic 50 cents2.5p
White paper 50 cents 2.5p
Crushed glass 30 cents1p
Prices offered by Blue Sky Recycling, January 2020 (ZAR and GBP)

Step 4. Selling 

We operated a church collection once a week for 5 weeks. We also asked children from the local school to collect PET bottles in exchange for stationary to coincide with the start of the school year. By the end of February, we had half-filled the shipping container and were ready to sell our first batch of material to Blue Sky Recyclers. In all, 12 people had volunteered their time at one or more of the 7 collection and sorting sessions, from 26thJanuary to the 23rdFebruary, totaling approximately 28 hours of work. Assuming that this level of income was maintained, the scheme would contribute just under R3,000 a year to church funds. It is often assumed that recycling entrepreneurs can pay themselves a salary. Our project has, so far, shown that this is not the case. If the total sale of recyclables was divided evenly between the volunteers, we would be able remunerate them R8.8 (50p) an hour for their time (R249 divided by 28 hours). This is less than half the national minimum wage in South Africa, which is currently R20 an hour.  

Receipt from Blue Sky:
Total income ZAR 249 (EUR 15 /GBP 12.63/ USD 16,35) 26 Feb 20

Next steps

The third month of the project also marked the first month of the outbreak of Covid-19 and on March The third month of the project also marked the first month of the outbreak of Covid-19 and on March 15th2020 a national state of disaster was declared. The project was immediately put on hold but the generation of plastic has not ceased. If anything, the consumption of single-use plastic will likely have increased. Like many other research collaborations, uncertainty makes it difficult to plan next steps and many are turning to online alternatives. This post is therefore the first in a series that will delve further into the issues raised in the 6 weeks that the project ran for, while Eluvukweni church focuses on health and wellbeing. 

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