Maverick Citizen


Viva la returnable bottles, viva! Time to rethink recycling and wash away the greenwashing

Viva la returnable bottles, viva! Time to rethink recycling and wash away the greenwashing
A worker sorts used plastic bottles at a Wuhan plastics recycling mill that is ceasing production as the global financial crisis starts to bite in China's recycling industry on 29 October 2008. (Photo: China Photos / Getty Images)

Despite the rush of ‘doing the right thing’, I know that my small contribution to managing waste is a drop in the ocean. Let us bring back old solutions and come up with new ones

June 5 is World Environment Day and the theme this year is PLASTIC. What I mean is… less plastic.

I have recycled for as long as I can remember. It’s a rush, you should try it. However, every time I fill my transparent plastic bag to take to a drop-off centre, I am both thrilled and horrified. I am doing my part of the Earth – but also, how is it possible that I have collected so much rubbish? (Store your recycling for a month and see how you feel about your consumption levels!) But also because I am older and wiser, I know that recycling doesn’t really “work”.*

That is why I have been the biggest advocate for using the little “plastic free” shop on the Cape West Coast for refilling my much-reused plastic bottles – mainly with detergents and liquid soaps. I find their prices reasonable, and their products good – despite being “eco-friendly” (which we all admit, can sometimes be a synonym for “less effective”). I proudly wash my hair with their excellent shampoo bars. But I have to admit, such a system of plastic-free and eco-friendly shops is only working for the middle class right now – and barely making a dent on our waste production.  

Which is the same for recycling – if you are expected to pay a fee for pick-up services. Not many people are like me, willing to drive to Woodstock to drop off recycling. What a schlep. It blows my mind that this is not a free municipal pick-up service for every single household in South Africa. That means options to create less plastic waste are only available to people like me. Essentially a small group of people, who have extra money, and have the time and gees to make it happen.

Our individual contributions to managing waste are as effective as reducing load shedding by turning off your lights when you’re not at home.

Despite the rush of “doing the right thing”, I know that my small contribution to managing waste is a drop in the ocean** – or a tiny star in our galaxy of trillions of stars. I live near a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Cape Town and it is horrifying to see the artificial and stinking mountain that we are creating within view of our local treasure, Table Mountain. Perhaps they will compete for size one day.

Yet, still I try to do my part even though my solutions are imperfect. These are within my power. 

As the world starts to use more renewable energy, the fossil fuel industry needs another market for all that oil and coal – and plastic production is where it’s going. Plastic production has ramped up massively in the past 20 years and it’s going to carry on climbing. This is not an “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” thing, this is a flood of plastic coming our way, that no amount of recycling can fix. Should I have more power, like being a president or CEO, I know that there are so many more solutions to the waste issue – a worldwide problem that comes with a deeply racist undertone. Just ask places like Vietnam, Turkey or Kenya, which are the dumping grounds for developed nations’ extra waste. The Guardian has called it “waste colonialism”, which is really just another term for environmental racism. My favourite has to be the word “Trashion” – the name of a documentary exposing the export of synthetic (or plastic) clothing to Kenya’s second-hand markets – which ends up in their landfills because it is “unsellable”. 

What are these solutions? I can tell you this: they don’t lie with just me or just you. Our individual contributions to managing waste are as effective as reducing load shedding by turning off your lights when you’re not at home. Don’t let the government or businesses tell you otherwise. This is called gaslighting, and yes, it is an overused word, but I can promise you now, we are being gaslit hard if we are made to believe we, just us alone with no policy shift, law or civil society movement behind us, can change a structural issue that is built on capitalism and, yes, racism. Don’t feel so guilty about buying plastic bags and charging up your inverter. And if you have informal waste pickers in your neighbourhood, see how you can help them out. Informal waste pickers in South Africa (and around) are responsible for recycling about 90% of plastic packaging that would end up languishing in the environment or in a landfill somewhere. 

African digital innovators are turning plastic waste into value, but there are gaps – here’s what can be done

African digital innovators are turning plastic waste into value. (Photo: Flickr / Nyancho Nwanri / Arete)

Talking of structural racism, I find the greenwashing in South Africa exhausting. What is greenwashing? Making you believe that something is good for the planet, when it is not. It might be because I work in the environmental justice sector, but I see greenwashing everywhere. The worst form of greenwashing is making plastics out of recycled materials and expecting that to reduce waste. Everyone remember the plastic bags made from recycled plastic bags which you could buy in certain supermarkets that were so thin and frail that your milk dropped out the bottom? So you throw it away and use another one, creating more… waste! 

But the reason greenwashing can be racist is because buying into reusable cups and eco-friendly products requires extra money, which most people in South Africa don’t have. Being eco-friendly is so… white. There is also a racist undertone when it comes to other things to do with waste in South Africa. For example, people litter and complain when they see chip packets and fast-food boxes thrown out of car windows, or screw up their noses when driving past township streets overflowing with rubbish. People on neighbourhood WhatsApp groups also love to complain when informal waste pickers visit their bins at 4am because apparently they bring crime. 

We live in a contradictory world – one in which poverty means lower waste outputs and lower carbon emissions for the poor, but where dependency on convenience and wasteful, cheap products, such as poor-quality clothing, is high. Yet, we want our country to grow richer, for all of us to have access to bountiful, cheap consumer goods (and electricity, yay!) and to have extra money in our wallets. But until we address our dependency on plastic, especially in the fast-food and convenience economy, and our belief that more stuff equals more happiness, we will just continue to add to the polluting, smelly, dangerous mountains that are our municipal landfills.

Buy less, and if you can’t not buy it, don’t buy its wasteful by-product. We only need the lentils, not the plastic bag they came in.

As the cost of living increases, we should be seeking ways to save the poor money, while giving them an opportunity to reduce their waste consumption, and this requires government and business to put in place policies, ideas, funding and other resources to address this. 

I had a dream… that you could walk into a shop and fill your already existing and well-used plastic bottles with all the products you need – and for less (very important!). Mountains of lentils and rivers of dishwashing liquid, buckets of rice that you can bury yourself in and canisters of affordable coffee spilling out into your reused glass jar. I dream of a world where mobile phones last longer than two years – because electronic waste is horrifying. I dream of a world where fast food is a luxury and people have time to cook healthy, delicious, waste-free dinners – and where leftovers are placed in Tupperware handed down from grandma before going in the fridge. Bring back grandma’s Tupperware!

The solutions: well, as my dream has shown, we need imagination. But also, we need to stop relying on people, and particularly poor people, to do the right thing! South Africa is currently signed onto a global waste treaty – which is wonderful news! It is also wonderful from the perspective of waste colonialism. But we know how slow and painful implementation by the government can be. And what of the costs of waste reduction by producers, that will probably be passed on to the consumer?

This World Environment Day, I am urging us to harness our imaginations and, also, remember the way it was before. Let us bring back old solutions and come up with new ones (Tupperware at fast-food restaurants… hmm). There are two sources of potential change: businesses who provide waste-free (but affordable) solutions, and consumers. You and me. This is something we can do together and it’s pretty easy. But we also need producers and retailers to give us more options. If you had a packaging-free section in your neighbourhood, and it wasn’t too pricey, wouldn’t you use it? How about if there were more reverse vending machines around, and you got a free parking voucher from using them? We need systems in our everyday lives that give us options to reduce the amount of waste we generate. Doing our research and understanding that, to make change, we need to stand together in how we consume. It is simple, don’t believe the hype, wash away the greenwashing. Buy less, and if you can’t not buy it, don’t buy its wasteful by-product. We only need the lentils, not the plastic bag they came in. 

And if that doesn’t motivate you, think about all the plastic you are ingesting in your lifetime, thousands of pieces a year! Shocking. Research is catching up with the plastic era, and we are starting to see all the places micro and nano-plastic particles end up. They’ve turned up in breast milk and now we know they can move from blood vessels into the brain. And so, I end this with a proposed new struggle song. It is called “Viva la returnable bottles, viva!”

*While recycling is definitely a good thing, there are some challenges such as the sorting facilities and the recycling facilities themselves – which usually can only recycle certain materials anyway – and the high energy and water consumption used in the process. Recycling is not the panacea we hope for – reduction in use of plastic is the only way forward. DM

**From the Daily Maverick article, “Plastic waste draft treaty is here and South Africa should embrace it”: In South Africa, about 3% or 80,000 tonnes of plastic leaks into rivers and oceans. While citizens have tried to play their part in reducing plastic waste and recycling, a recycling rate of 14% cannot catch up with the 2.3 million tonnes of plastic produced every year.

Joanna Wallace is a green economy specialist working to bring circularity and sustainability practices to business and government initiatives. Claire Martens is a communications officer working on issues of environmental justice in Africa. 

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.


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  • Ottilie Neser says:

    Tupperware: before 2010 ( when changes were made to the chemical composition) the products contained Phthalates, that made the plastic more flexible. So old Tupperware still contains that chemical. It used to get very sticky after a few years, as it was leaching its phthalates. The old containers also contained BPA (Bisphenol A). Apparently the new Tuppeware is safer…

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