In April 2019 I travelled with my wife, daughter, and mother-in-law from Johannesburg to Umhlanga in KwaZulu-Natal. This trip was for an auspicious occasion. I was about to attend my graduation ceremony at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It had been a few years since we were last in KwaZulu-Natal and the excitement in my daughter was uncontainable as we drove over the Umhlanga crest and she saw the ocean merging into the horizon, and a steady stream of ships waiting access to Durban harbour.
It was not long before we headed to the beach and had a swim in the ocean. I was dismayed by the amount of plastic brushing up against our bodies with each passing wave. In fact, I was deeply alarmed, so much so that I couldn’t enjoy the experience, consciously aware of the damage this plastic was doing to our ocean ecosystem. Even my daughter started trying to collect plastic bags rather than freely enjoying the ocean like every child should.
The challenge of waste, and plastic pollution seems insurmountable. With over three decades working in the conservation and environmental sector, I can’t help but feel that our conservation successes are overshadowed by ever increasing hostile stresses on the natural environment and that we have already tipped ourselves over the edge. It’s so easy, and so tempting to give up and turn a blind eye, but each time I look at my daughter and her generation, I realise that despite the odds, I simply cannot give in. We need to fight this madness. And we need a massive, unprecedented, collective effort.
In this first of a regular series on recycling, I will delve into home recycling. Every one of us are consumers of products. Each of these products is manufactured from glass, plastic, metal and other materials, and almost always packaged in material that we often blindly throw away in the dustbin. We will investigate the latest technologies behind waste management and what we can collectively do to prevent tons of waste from polluting our oceans and landscapes.
A home collective
Let me stress from the outset, recycling is not easy. Against the backdrop of economic woes, concerns around the coronavirus, paying the bills, and keeping relationships on a healthy balance, not to mention the bombardment of information we’re subjected to through social media, the press, television and the advertising industry. But, take a deep breath, relax and let’s just get started…
Many people living in suburbia have space constraints and often there is an army of informal street recyclers collecting items from dustbins on collection day. This is great. These people are earning an income and removing tons of waste to be recycled. Unfortunately, they’re usually after the items that sell. Make it easier for them. When we lived in a complex in Germiston, I used to collect plastic and metal over a period of a month and would then give the washed and sorted items to a collections lady who would otherwise spend her entire day shifting through dirty dustbins. She was most grateful as on that particular day she could fill her recycling bag in a short time and go straight to the recycling depot.
I generally wash all items straight after the dishes. These items are then left to dry. This ensures that there will be no bacterial build up and prevent associated odours, allowing for long-term storage.
Plastic remains one of our most serious environmental pollutants. Shopping retailers and government legislation have made strides in reducing the amount of waste through shopping bags, but this is only the tip of a monumental iceberg. Virtually every food item is wrapped and packaged in plastic, and it’s these smaller packaging plastics that pose a real problem. They get everywhere, into our wetlands and streams, and oceans. In future issues we will look more into the different types of plastics and how they can be recycled, but for the purpose of this article, plastics can be placed in two categories – soft plastics such as shopping bags, and hard plastics, such as cooldrink bottles etc. I fold and compact soft plastic into used bread plastic bags and it’s remarkable how much plastic can be folded and stored inside these bags.
I also separate all loose plastic items and bottle caps, tags, and related items I store inside a large empty plastic water bottle. Polystyrene is another product used extensively in food packaging and we will delve more into polystyrene recycling in future issues.
Many plastic items have recycling symbols printed on the packaging and in future issues we will interpret these symbols.
Most home consumables are in the form food packaging comprising aluminium tins and cans. These can all be recycled. As with plastic items, I wash, rinse and dry aluminium tins and store them for later disposal at a recycling depot.
Glass is one of the more environmentally friendly products and can be recycled indefinitely. Discarded glass in the environment, although unsightly, causes little harm. However, bottles can be a trap for many smaller creatures. Glass should feature more in packaging, especially for liquids, but it is more expensive to produce than plastic, has a heavier weight to volume ratio, and is more prone to breakage. Unfortunately, in this regard, plastic is easier, lighter and cheaper to produce. In future issues we will look at glass recycling. As with plastic and tin, I wash and dry all glass items and where possible remove the labels. Many glass jars, such as coffee jars, can be re-used as storage vessels for other items such as pasta, rice, sugar etc.
Cardboard and paper
Cardboard of various thicknesses and designs is another popular packaging material. Most cardboard and paper products can be recycled, but how about the smaller items such as cereal boxes and milk cartons? Some liquid packaging uses an aluminium film on the inside and a sealable coating to prevent leakage and soiling for the packaging. Can these items be recycled? We will find out more from industry players. At present, I take all cardboard packaging and disassemble them at the seams so that they can be stored flat. This includes the aluminium-lined milk cartons where I remove the plastic caps.