When you were in nappies: How recycling is easier than ever in 2024.

Over the past three decades, recycling has undergone a remarkable transformation. Indeed, it has far surpassed niche activist beginnings, to become what it is today.

Recycling is now mandatory and enforced in countless countries. It has been recognised by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the United Nations (UN), and many other influential entities, as an essential component of conservation and industry. South Africa itself is experiencing a boom in the recycling business, spurred on by Extended Producer Responsibility and a fast-growing recycling and collection sector.

So, how did it get there?

We’ve already explored where recycling could be going. It’s time we discuss how it got to where it is. This blog article explores the journey of recycling in South Africa, from activism to essential economic activity. It may surprise you that people were thinking circular when you were still in nappies.

The solution that made everything worse

Taking the lead from Europe, the Environment Conservation Act of 1989 (Act No. 73 of 1989) introduced measures of compliance and registration for landfills. By 2001 (only 12 years later), the reality of this as a waste management solution had set in. Not only were landfills filling up fast, but the toxins from the waste were found to seep into the soil, poisoning the groundwater underneath and causing untold ecological damage.

People think that the turn of the millennium put a full-stop on the era of landfilling in South Africa. The scary truth is that we’re still experiencing it. There are 826 landfills across South Africa, dealing with approximately 98 million tonnes of waste each year (Source). Every single one of these landfills is close to capacity, and it’s estimated that with current waste disposal rates, landfills will be at capacity in the next few years unless we do something now.

The emergence of recycling in South Africa

Recycling in South Africa has roots dating back to the 1970s. Back then, it was billed as a single solution to two problems: income generation and sourcing raw materials for industry. Aluminium cans were the recyclable of choice, and the first facilities to support the recycling of these were established in 1976, laying the groundwork for collecting and sorting as the basis for recycling in South Africa.

For nearly 3 decades, recycling continued to be driven by social issues and industry’s demand for materials. In the 90s, numerous paper businesses began incentivised programmes at schools and offices, with specialised collection bins provided to all participants. The sustainability benefits of diverting from landfills weren’t well-explained or even understood, and these messages were largely confined to the classroom.

It wasn’t until 2001, with the Polokwane Declaration, that recycling targets were set for the country. Even then, these targets weren’t legislated – serving mostly as guidelines going forward. It did, however, lead to the rapid expansion of the recycling economy in South Africa owing to industry initiatives, voluntary investment, and numerous economic factors associated with sourcing raw materials.

Guidelines were published to assist municipalities in waste management, emphasising waste reduction rather than disposal. This was followed by the banning of single-use, lightweight plastic bags in 2003 and the implementation of a plastic bag tax aimed at minimising plastic bag littering. Buy-back centres also began offering monetary rewards for recyclable materials, which led to informal waste picking gaining popularity as a source of income.

Producer Responsibility: A switch of focus

Though a foundation was laid out as far back as March 2000 with the White Paper on Integrated Pollution and Waste Management (IPandWM), actual legislation would only come 8 years later, with the National Environmental Management: Waste Act 59 of 2008. This legislation aimed to regulate the waste sector comprehensively, outlining the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in South Africa.

EPR stipulates that the same party responsible for bringing a product to the market is responsible for its exit. As recently as 5 years ago, producers passed on all responsibility for their products (including the burden of disposal/recycling) to buyers upon sale, but no more. The best interests of the economy and planet, and the best interests of business and industry, would finally align. Cutting costs by avoiding circular manufacturing practice was no longer viable.

Over subsequent years, producers took the ruling with varying degrees of seriousness. But then, on 5 May 2020, the Section 8 laws were finally passed. Companies had 12 months to both register as producers and figure out their EPR schemes. Failure to comply would be unthinkable, as that would result in heavy financial penalties and even jail time.

While some businesses opted to manage their own EPR schemes, Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs), were created to facilitate the EPR of companies that couldn’t. Various PROs entered the fray and each specialised in managing a specific area of the market (Fibre Circle, for example, manages extended producer responsibility programmes to keep paper and paper packaging out of South Africa’s landfills). To manage the process, PROs needed to partner with relevant collectors and recycling businesses. To manage demand, they offered training and support to aspiring collectors and recycling businesses. Suddenly tons of investment and interest poured into the recycling space.

And it was all thanks to a little law that shifted responsibility.

Recycling today: convenience meets progress

EPR shifts the responsibility for managing the waste generated by products from consumers to the producers of those products. This means that producers are incentivised to design products that are easier to recycle or reuse. As a result, consumers are more likely to encounter products that have clear recycling instructions or are made from recyclable materials, making the recycling process more straightforward.

PROs further enhance the consumer recycling experience by investing in recycling infrastructure. In addition to partnering with recycling companies and buy-back centres, they often collaborate with local communities and governments to promote recycling initiatives and provide support for recycling programs. This collaboration helps create a culture of recycling and encourages more consumers to participate in recycling efforts.

In addition to infrastructure, PROs also play a crucial role in educating consumers about recycling. Through public awareness campaigns, consumers come to understand the finer details of recycling, such as what can be recycled, what cannot be recycled, and why we recycle. This education empowers consumers to practice the correct recycling etiquette and make better recycling choices, ensuring that recyclable materials are processed effectively and free of contamination.

The standardisation of recycling processes and materials also makes things easier. When recycling guidelines and processes are consistent and clear, consumers are less likely to make mistakes. Additionally, transparency is much improved, and consumers are afforded comfort and confidence that their recyclables will be handled responsibly and processed in a sustainable and circular way.

Recycling is more accessible than ever. EPR has not only shifted recycling’s responsibility away from consumers; it now ensures that the industry reaps the benefits of increased interest and investment. The resulting infrastructure is layered and comprehensive, running at every level of the waste management process. You can even get a private waste management service to handle your drop offs (though our branches are easy to find if you want to do it yourself)!

Separation-at-source is still recommended of course. By taking the time to collect, clean, and separate your recyclables, you play a crucial role in supporting the entire recycling chain. Cleaned and separated recyclables are more desirable to buy-back centres and recycling facilities, making it more likely that they will be bought. Your efforts also make collection more efficient at every level, reducing time and money spent sorting and processing.

Your commitment to recycling also has environmental benefits. By diverting recyclable materials from landfills, you reduce the amount of waste that ends up polluting our environment. This contributes to conserving natural resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting ecosystems. By setting an example through responsible recycling practices, you encourage your friends, family, and community members to do the same. This spreads awareness even further, fostering sustainability in your community.


A lot has changed in the last few decades. South Africa has braved a waste culture fuelled by landfilling, a resulting ecological crisis, and a struggle to find recycling’s identity. We’ve arrived at the age of Producer Responsibility – where, whether for planet, people, or profit, industries, governments, consumers, and activists, are united in their pursuit of circularity.

The journey towards a truly sustainable and circular economy is ongoing and more imperative than ever before. Yes, recycling has become easier and more accessible. But it is crucial we continue playing our role as consumers. Individual actions, such as separating recyclables, cleaning them, and supporting recycling initiatives, are small when weighed against the machinery of the recycling complex but they are no less important.

The fact remains that only 10% of all recyclables are successfully diverted from landfill. We have 90% more to go but today we have the time and infrastructure to turn this thing around once and for all.

And let’s give future generations the gift of a world without waste while they’re still in nappies. It’s possible.

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