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Adventures in recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg

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Wednesday, 24 January 2018
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“It is unbelievable that my neighbours don’t separate their waste”, proclaimed the gentleman I met for lunch a few Sundays ago over his fish dish. I’m not sure what my own neighbours do with their household waste in the privacy of their own homes, but I do know that recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg can, on any good day, be quite tedious, interesting and/or frustrating.  I, however, choose to describe it as adventurous.

A few months ago I moved from my townhouse in a security complex in Pretoria to an older established suburb in Johannesburg. In the security complex recycling was very straightforward. The complex has bins for glass, paper and plastic and these bins are collected regularly. All one has to do is separate one’s household waste and deposit recyclables in the correct container. 

My current situation is quite different. Now I live in a stand-alone house in an old (and poorer) suburb and I am responsible for dealing with my recycling on my own, meaning I have to make the effort to remove it from my premises, drive to where I can find recycling containers within the suburb and deposit the items in there. But it being Johannesburg, a city plagued with inequality and poverty, there are also recycling collectors who roam the streets on ‘rubbish collecting days’ searching the bins placed in the street for recyclable items which they then sell to recycling companies. With the full realization that by removing my recyclable items from my bin, I might be depriving several households from a livelihood, I decided to still separate my household waste but to put the recyclables in a separate container for easy collection by the recycling collectors. To my bewilderment, my logical system was completely ignored by the series of collectors going through my rubbish bin. They left behind several items in my recyclable pile and still ransacked my other waste to see what might lurk in there, taking very noticeably the black plastic bag the non-recyclable items was in.

Being a true Johannesburger, I also have CCTV cameras angled at my pavement for security reasons and being a researcher, I decided to use the CCTV footage to ascertain the collection patterns to see what is collected and what is not. Whilst it might have been acceptable to just let the remaining recyclables go off to the dump, I was not sure whether these would be separated at the dump or whether it was all just going to end up in the landfill. So, I decided to watch and study the collecting habits of the recycling collectors and adjust my separation accordingly. As I was anyway taking glass to the recycling bin – glass is not collected by the collectors presumably because of its weight and the danger of carrying and pushing breaking bottles – I might just as well take the remaining recyclables as well. Putting aside my concerns about the ethics of using cameras to spy on uninformed persons, I embarked on studying the collectors’ habits over several weeks. Every week I learned something new; every second week any assumptions I had, based on my on-going research results, were proven to be incorrect, as the collectors (who are all the same persons every week) changed their habits on a weekly basis. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their collecting. 

Last week, feeling quite exasperated, I dashed outside to speak to a collector when he tossed aside my carefully collected paper waste, which he had collected just three weeks prior, to ask: “Man, what gives?”. 

“It makes my bag too heavy”, he answered. 

“But I thought you get paid based on the weight of your products?”

“Yes, we are, but if it is too heavy, I cannot push and pull it easily and I might get hit by a car. Today I have a lot of tins and plastic. I do not need your paper.”


Further discussion with the other two regulars indicated that the items they will always collect are tins and plastic bottles. Paper… well, that depends on the situation on that day. Other recyclable plastic, unless it is big black plastic bags that can be re-used, are also not wanted. So, going forward, I will deposit my paper and plastic in the appropriate recycling bins when I deposit my glass. Tins and plastic bottles I will put aside for the collectors and this way, hopefully, all the bases will be covered - for now. As I said, recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg is an adventure like no other.



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