Our Burning Planet

Taking Action

Feeling helpless about the climate crisis? Here’s what you can do

Feeling helpless about the climate crisis? Here’s what you can do
Activist from Mining Affected Communities United in Action. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The climate crisis can be overwhelming to understand and to take action against. One Our Burning Planet reader asked, ‘What is the best way for me to contribute to action and activism on this crucial [climate] crisis, both in the way I live, and in law?’ Here’s what we found out

The way we live:


  • Be informed

Coleen Vogel, Wits professor, climatologist and contributing author of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, suggests getting informed about what is driving the climate crisis and how we contribute towards it.

Read the IPCC’s latest report, which uses the most up-to-date understanding of the climate system and climate change. 

  • Inform others

Lisakhanya Mathiso (18), a youth activist and African Climate Alliance ambassador from Khayelitsha, suggests educating yourself and educating those around you.

Vogel believes that education about the climate and how we are all interconnected into one Earth and one system for humanity is important.

Alex Lenferna, secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition, addresses the crowd. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Brandon Abdinor, climate advocacy lawyer from the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) says, “Read about climate change in SA and educate friends and neighbours. The more people understand what the risks are, and speak out, the more pressure will build on decision-makers”.  

  • Eat locally sourced food 

Abdinor suggests eating locally sourced food that hasn’t travelled vast distances.

Waste management expert and the founder of Waste-ED, Candice Mostert, and youth activist Mathiso suggest starting your own community garden so you can grow local food and accept your community’s food waste.

  • Eat less meat 

Abdinor and secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition, Alex Lenferna say meat production causes methane emissions which contributes towards climate change.

  • Figure out which plastic is recyclable

Throwing all your plastic into your recycling bin isn’t a great idea.

Metal, cardboard, paper, and glass are generally quite recyclable, but plastic is not as simple. 

Over half of our plastic ends up in a landfill.

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries noted in its final draft of the 2018 State of Waste Report that in 2017 South Africa generated an estimated 2,2 million tonnes of plastic, 43.7% of which was recycled and 56.3% of which was added to landfill.

This isn’t just because half the population does not recycle: much of the plastic that is sent for recycling cannot be recycled and ends up in landfills anyway. 

In 2019 Plastics SA reported that almost three-quarters of the plastic that was recycled in South Africa during 2018 was recovered from landfills and other post-consumer sources.

Mostert says not all plastic is recycled, especially if it is contaminated by food.

Plastic is usually recycled by being melted and turned into something else. But not all plastic can be melted together, as different plastic compositions (with different oil and chemical combinations) have different melting points. 

At the back of every plastic product is a triangle with a number in it. This is the “resin code”, reflecting the types of chemicals added, which guides the recycler.

Recyclers only recycle certain resin codes because there might not be enough demand for that material (so they can’t sell the product after it’s been recycled), they might not have the facilities, it might be contaminated, or the product is too small and not worth collecting – like straws, chip packets, sweet wrappers and lollipop sticks.

“Collecting thousands of straws to only get a value of R2 is just not worth it for recyclers,” explains Mostert. 

Finally, mixed materials are generally not recyclable as many recyclers in SA do not have the resources to separate the materials.

  • Implement the three-bin system

To manage waste better, Mostert advises implementing the three-bin system.

Bin one: food waste

“If we’re not managing our food waste, we are sending that food waste to the landfill or were contaminating our bag full of ready-to-recycle material,” says Mostert.

All you need is a container – whether it is an old yogurt or ice cream container, or a special bucket with a lid.

“So whenever you are making your food and cutting your veg, you can put all your food waste into that little bucket. Any other compostable packaging as well – toothpicks, anything that comes from nature should go back to nature.” 

Use a small container because you want to empty it out daily or every second day.

Unless you have a garden and your own compost heap, empty the food bucket into a bigger bucket (20 – 25l) with a lid that’s kept outside. 

Once the big bucket is filled, take it to a local community composting site, such as the Oranjezicht City Farm in Cape Town.

Bin two: Recyclables 

Mostert says you don’t need five bins to separate your glass, cardboard, metal etc as it will all be taken to the recycler and in South Africa, recyclers generally separate on site.

If recyclables are not clean and dry, they are likely to end up in the landfill. 

“Most facilities in South Africa don’t have washing facilities to process the stuff first. So anything dirty or contaminated [plastic], just gets landfilled immediately,” says Mostert, suggesting that leftover dishwashing water can be used to rinse and clean materials earmarked for recycling. 

Mostert says that in South Africa, recycle codes three, five and six are generally not recyclable, but recyclers might differ.


For the plastics that your recycler can’t recycle (read above), pack them in a plastic bottle to create an “ecobrick”.

Mostert says households of four people can make one eco-brick a month. 

For the plastics that your recycler can’t recycle (read above), pack it in a plastic bottle to create an ‘ecobrick’. (Photo: Julia Evans)

These ecobrick can be dropped off at collection initiatives, like Waste-ED, or after creating a few, can be turned into sustainable structures made with natural building materials and mortar, like “cob” (made from straw, clay and sand).

The ecobrick isn’t meant to encourage the use of plastic: It’s a way to store non-recyclable plastics so they don’t end up in landfills or in the ocean.

“It should also encourage us to start decreasing and using the ecobrick as a tool to track and decrease our non-recyclables over time, finding alternatives and supporting reusable shops like Nude Foods, or Zero Waste,” says Mostert.

  • Push for more sustainable and compostable packaging

Recycling or eco-bricking plastic is a short-term solution.

Mostert says that recycling is not a sustainable long-term option. “Even though we can turn things into something else and that’s great, it can only happen so many times, and then we’re always still left with an end product that is not recyclable. And that is worrying.”

Waste centre.Credt: Waste-Ed / Candice Mostert

Mostert believes the real solution is moving toward compostable and reusable packaging.

We don’t always have a choice as compostable or reusable packaging might not be readily available. There’s no large-scale management system in place to deal with compost in SA, unless on a small scale, in gardens or communities. 

“But we definitely need to enquire and learn more about this stuff so that we can pressure things to go this way,” says Mostert. “And I’m quite excited to see shops in South Africa starting to look at reusable solutions, even the big ones like Pick n Pay and Spar or trialling reusable systems. So it really showcases the value of this.”

  • Conserve energy and water

Lenferna says when it comes to individual lifestyle changes such as conserving water and energy, the wealthy have the biggest responsibility as they consume and emit the most carbon. 

A running tap in Hammanskraal, where there is an ongoing water crisis. (Photo: Julia Evans)

  • Use public transit

Lenferna and Abdinor suggest using public transport, reducing air travel, and investing in electric vehicles. 

Switch to renewables, or call for renewables

Lenferna, Mathiso and Abdinor believe in using renewable energy.

“The energy sector is the biggest cause of climate change, especially in SA where 90% of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels [coal],” says Abdinor. “Fossil fuel energy not only contributes towards greenhouse gas emissions but it is a danger to your health, as pollutants get into your lungs and cause a variety of illnesses. Organising and mobilising to transition to new forms of renewable energy is essential.” 

Vogel advocates for substantive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, in a just and equitable way.

  • Advocate for structural change

“I think often individual efforts have an important but limited impact,” says Lenferna.

“And so, if we want to enable more people to make choices for low carbon or less ecological impactful lifestyles, then we need to invest in infrastructure that can facilitate that, so invest in mass transit, invest in clean energy, invest in building efficiency – which requires massive government action.

“A big part of what we need to be pushing to help people reduce their emissions is for big infrastructure change… so that more people can have access to these sorts of important services and alternatives.” 

Abdinor says, “Get your banks, pension funds and investment vehicles to stop funding coal fired power stations and gas projects which contribute to climate change – write letters to your banks.”

  • Legislation 

CER lawyer, Abdinor, told Our Burning Planet that proposed legislation and certain licencing or authorisation processes allow for public participation and submission of comments, where climate change concerns can be raised. Find out what is in the pipeline and comment.

Abdinor says, “There is a range of areas in which legislation can and should take climate change considerations into account – energy, mining, water, integrated development plans [local government], spatial development plans and changes of land use, and more.”

For example, the 2021 draft Climate Change Bill has been published, and while comments are not yet open, the public can view it for a better understanding of the issues and to plan comments for when they do open.

“It is very useful to be able to provide input on technical, scientific, ecological or other expert or specialist aspects of potential impacts,” said Abdinor. “It is also useful to provide in-depth knowledge on the situational or contextual aspects of a development, where for example you live in an affected area, and/or have knowledge about the local environment, communities or socio-economic issues.

Climate crisis activist Rehad Desai addresses a crowd gathered outside the DMRE building in Tshwane. (Photo: Julia Evans)

“However, you don’t have to have in-depth or specialist knowledge to comment on either legislation or license applications. There are a number of high level or generic comments which are valuable in terms of signifying to decision-makers that concerns about climate change are widespread and must be taken into account.”

  • Authorisations and licences

Abdinor explains that environmental authorisations are required for nearly all large developments and projects.  

“The law now effectively requires that climate change considerations are taken into account and are dealt with in the Environmental Impact Assessment process.

“It is everyone’s right to register as an interested and affected party (I&AP) for EIA processes. It is important to register as an I&AP as soon as possible, which ensures that all further official communications and updates are circulated to you, including deadlines for submissions.”

For example, applications for waste management and atmospheric emission licenses require climate impact assessments to be undertaken, and applications for mining and water use licenses provide the opportunity for public participation, where you can give a climate related comment. 

Final thoughts

Abdinor says that it’s important citizens participate in legislation and authorisation because the climate will affect every region and every sector. “It is critically important that all voices are heard and all impacts are considered.”

“I think it’s a complex question in a lot of ways,” says Alex Lenferna, reflecting on the reader’s question. 

“And the balance between lifestyle change and broader activism is important. Historically, it’s vital to know that big polluting corporations often put a lot of emphasis on individual lifestyle change, as a way of deflecting blame for their actions to prevent policy change.

“And so, while individual lifestyle changes are important, these big pushes for policies to regulate and rein in polluters is arguably where big change is needed, and certainly in South Africa… with Sasol and Eskom being some of the world’s biggest and worst polluters.” DM/OBP


Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    do what you can to reduce your direct and indirect support for companies that don’t seem to care about the environment.

  • Judy Scott-Goldman says:

    When a political party representative telephones you to ask whether you intend to vote for them, ask them what their party is doing about climate change. Politicians will not make climate change a priority unless the electorate tells them they are concerned about it.

  • Marianne Scholtz says:

    An outstanding article with practical ideas. It is hard to keep recycling until you really take note of how much plastic a two-person household generates. I often have the impression that many of Cape Town’s citizens are far ahead in their recycling efforts compared to those of us in Gauteng. I will persist because as it is frighteningly said, ‘There is no Planet B’.

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