Opinionista Ivo Vegter 12 June 2018

Joburg dumps recycling costs on residents

Johannesburg is about to make recycling at home mandatory. As with any such programme, this will lead to wasted time, money and effort, inefficiency and sweet deals for the government’s corporate cronies. When recycling does have benefits, someone will pay you to do so.

From July 1, 2018, it will become mandatory for Johannesburg residents to keep multiple refuse bins, separating their recyclables from other rubbish.

In between what his public relations people describe as “back-breaking work” picking up litter, councillor Nico de Jager made the announcement that “separation at source” will become mandatory last week. He said more details would be announced on June 12, 2018, which is wonderful to know, given that the implementation date is only two and a half weeks away.

At the moment, there isn’t even a municipal service to pick up recycling. Tom Head, writing for The South African, says there are a couple of private recycling services in Johannesburg – like this one which is unable to keep a website running, and EcoMonkey – which, for fees starting at R85 per month for one bin every fortnight, will collect recyclables from your doorstep.

However, they serve only a handful of wealthy suburbs, because only rich people can be bothered to spend time and effort rinsing out plastics and separating their waste. Residents who are not serviced privately, are encouraged to transport their own refuse to recycling collection points.

The actual contribution a resident can make is, of course, questionable. According to EcoMonkey, recycling all the paper an average person uses in a year will save less than one tree. And that is a tree that doesn’t need saving, because it is planted for the express purpose of being pulped for paper, and will be replaced by a new tree as soon as it’s off to the paper mill.

A ton of recycled glass, which is way more than you’ll ever recycle, saves a mere 1.5m3 of landfill space, 5.5kg of air pollution, and enough energy to run your television for less than a fortnight.

Plastic needs to be rinsed clean first, and then only certain types of plastic can be recycled. The list of what plastic can and can’t be recycled is long. They claim plastic in the oceans kills a million animals per year.

That plays into a familiar narrative. Plastics supposedly kill our oceans, and you are at fault. They choke larger animals, and so-called “micro-plastics” are detectable in the marine food chain at all levels, where, presumably, they do great harm. Besides, we’re running out of landfill space.

As with most environmental alarms, there is some truth to the story, but it is wildly exaggerated.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which National Geographic thinks is overly grandly named, contains 79,000 metric tons of plastic. This is a very tiny fraction of the more than 300 million tons of plastic produced each year. Contrary to popular images, the supposed garbage patch cannot readily be seen from the air or even from a boat deck. Most of the plastic particles are tiny and drift below the surface. Even then, they comprise only 0.0000008% of the water volume near the surface. Instead of a garbage patch, one might better visualise it as “flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup”.

It has long been thought that waste from land makes up the majority of ocean plastic, but recent work on cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch suggests this is not so. It is not made up of shopping bags, soft drink bottles and drinking straws. Instead, reports National Geographic, 20% of the patch is a result of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, 46% is made up of abandoned fishing nets, and “the majority of the rest is composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets.”

Overall, about 2% to 3% of plastic makes its way into our oceans as litter. This is obviously more than we’d like, but since most residential refuse ends up in landfills, and not in the ocean, it is highly unlikely that recycling separation at source by wealthy households will make a great deal of difference to this percentage.

The claim that a million sea animals die each year as a result of plastic also seems unfounded. An article by Sipho Kings in the Mail & Guardian in 2015 says plastic waste has been linked to a million sea bird deaths, but his source for that claim does not actually say so. Nor can the claim that 100,000 marine mammals have died due to plastic ingestion be found in the source to which he linked. In any case, he doesn’t say that these numbers represent annual deaths. The National Geographic article linked above says an estimated 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastics every year, a claim which is often repeated without attribution. However, it also cites a source that doesn’t actually corroborate the claim. If true, this suggests that the million marine animal deaths per year claim is overstated by many orders of magnitude.

Even if not, however, statistics such as these are never placed in perspective. How many marine animals are there? Is 100,000, or a million, a lot? Frankly, there may be a million species in the oceans, amounting to many billions or even trillions of individuals. We might be concerned about even small losses, but they do not justify regulatory counter-measures at any expense.

When headlines about “micro-plastics” come up, notice how they always say “micro-plastics were found” in this or that marine species. They rarely say how many particles were found, and never say how this would differ from, say, sand particles ingested by marine animals. The mere presence of micro-plastics is assumed to be harmful, but real research on whether it is an actual hazard, or what the risk is to marine life, is sorely lacking. There simply isn’t much more in the scientific literature than anecdotal evidence about individual animals.

A 2017 paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology says: “the actual environmental risks of different plastics and their associated chemicals remain largely unknown”.

In an article in the same journal, by G Allen Burton Jr, a professor in ecosystems research at the University of Michigan, he concludes that micro-plastic pollution poses a low risk, because of very low observed concentrations in most places.

He writes: “As editor-in-chief of one of the premier journals for environmental toxicology, I find the continuing publication of microplastics studies stating a severe environmental threat, in high quality journals disturbing. These studies are rapidly picked up by the news media, as we have seen and serve to misinform the public and policy makers, as noted by others.”

If you think recycling your plastic Coke bottles in Johannesburg is going to save the dolphins, your expectations are rather too high. The same is true if you think plastic pollution poses a major risk to marine life. There is simply no evidence for this claim.

Then there’s the claim about landfills. According to eNCA, they’re full, and recycling is the only answer.

This is, of course, nonsense. It may be true that the space currently used for landfills is filling up, but in terms of land surface area, they make up a tiny, tiny fraction of South Africa. It would be trivial to establish new sites for refuse. A calculation by Bjorn Lomborg, in his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, found that all the refuse the US will produce in the 21st century could be dumped in a single landfill 30m high, and 26km to a side. That represents 0.0009% of that country’s land area. Even if South Africans were to start producing as much waste as Americans do (and thanks to our lower prosperity we’re far from that lofty goal), we would not run out of space to put it.

It seems a sensible goal not to inefficiently use land for refuse, but the far better question is what it costs to dump a ton of waste in landfill, compared that to what it costs to divert some portion of that for recycling. That, ultimately, is a question only the market can answer.

The claimed benefits of recycling, however, never count the cost of water and electricity you use to rinse your recyclables, or the fuel you use and pollution you create to drive it to the nearest collection point or have it collected, or the cost of the time you spend rinsing, separating and transporting your refuse. Making recycling mandatory imposes significant time and costs on residents, which is a major reason why only rich people do it.

Poor people spend too much time working, raising children, cleaning their houses, feeding their families, and occasionally taking the dog for a walk to have time for recycling. They also don’t have the luxury of space to accommodate two or more separate refuse bins, both inside and outside their homes. Not to mention that there is no conceivable way the municipality will be able to enforce recycling in poor neighbourhoods, which comprise the majority of Johannesburg’s population by numbers.

Of course, separating recyclables at source is pretty useless if you’re still mixing all recyclables together. You’re going to need just as many pickers as you currently do picking recyclables from the ordinary, mixed post-consumer waste stream. To anyone who observes the perpetual expansion of the bureaucratic state, the consequence of this observation is clear. As the government dumps more of the cost of recycling on consumers, expect to need as many as six different dustbins, plus the real estate to store them, plus an equal number of bins in the kitchen. You could probably build an entire low-cost house on the acreage you’ll eventually require for your recycling bins.

An example of what happens when government gets involved in mandatory recycling schemes, we need look no further than the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of SA (Redisa), the government’s plan to promote waste tyre recycling. The idea was to support the recycling economy, create jobs, and turn waste tyres into value. The government taxed all tyres to fund the programme.

Within two years, the entire plan collapsed into scandal. Although Redisa reported having created over 3,000 jobs, only a few dozen of those people were actually working by 2015. The managers bought a massive multimillion-rand mansion in Saxonwold from which to run their operation, while they limited informal tyre collectors to 750 tyres per month, earning them the measly wage of R1,500 per month, or R8.50 per hour. None of Redisa’s targets were met, and most of the used tyres ended up being shipped to China, instead of feeding a domestic recycling industry. Millions went missing, the Hawks got involved, and Redisa was liquidated only four years after it was founded. At one point, a director of Redisa explained that they had spent five years creating a collection network, and would spend the next five years “stimulating market demand”. In what business would it be okay to spend over R1 billion and five years to create (or collect) a product, before even starting to figure out demand?

A lot of recycling already happens in South Africa, without mandatory and costly separation-at-source programmes. Over 20% of all virgin plastic in South Africa is already being diverted from landfills for recycling, according to Plastics SA. In fact, South Africa’s mechanical plastics recycling rates are among the highest in the world, it claims. And as it becomes more economically viable to recycle more plastics, firms will pay to divert it from the waste stream.

A case in point is the history of recycling aluminium and tin-plated steel cans in South Africa. Because of the high cost of virgin material, especially in terms of electricity, ArcelorMittal and Nampak co-operated to found Collect-A-Can. In its 23 years of existence, it has improved used can recovery rates from 18% to 72%.

Like other refuse, cans are not profitable to separate at source. With the exception of a few of my friends, no single consumer could ever hope to collect enough empty cans to make their time and efforts worthwhile. However, thousands of people make a living collecting cans for Collect-A-Can, which pays R8 per kilogram, amounting to about 77 cans. The organisation pours money into school competitions and awareness campaigns. It makes the business of recycling both fun and profitable, without imposing on consumers’ time and money with mandatory regulations that are bound to fail.

The same can be said for other recyclables that are worth recycling, such as paper, glass and electronics. If you’re not getting paid to recycle, you’re being had. And if you’re too rich to bother with small payments for large quantities, there are very many South Africans who are not, and could use the income provided by profitable, private-sector recycling.

Recycling at source will inevitably crowd out private market participants, including small-scale pickers, in favour of companies chosen by municipal bureaucrats to process recycling waste. This is a recipe for cronyism, corruption and inefficiency, camouflaged under a feel-good layer of eco-minded sanctimony.

Burdening residents with onerous regulations about recycling is a great way to depress South Africa’s economy even further. Leave recycling to the companies that know how to do it profitably and pay people to separate waste, instead of relying on government to force citizens to separate waste for free, using arguments that appeal to emotion but are not supported by scientific research, economics, or indeed, practical experience.

Lying to consumers about running out of landfill space or killing the oceans, only to shift the cost of recycling to them and thereby enriching government cronies with headquarters in Saxonwold, does not strike me as good policy. Unless they pay you for your recyclables, resist, Joburgers, resist. DM

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