Recycling containers

Containers vs culture and the informal sector

Very often when organizations decide to start a recycling program the first thing they do is buy new recycling containers. Which is all good-and-well – but, if they don’t change their culture first they are wasting their money.

The container – be it a wheelie bin, office bin or specialized recycling bin – is necessary and an important part of the recycling process. But it is way less important than building an internal recycling culture. One can recycle without containers. One cannot recycle without a recycling culture.

If you don’t change recycling culture first, you are wasting money on containers

In the container-first approach an organization decides it will recycle. Someone says they need containers to do the recycling. After an online search the organization buys some very colourful containers. For a while these are new and exciting but in most cases the excitement fades as does the recycling.

In the culture-first approach an organization decides to recycle and starts doing it. Secretaries use old paper boxes to recycle paper under their desks and champions take it upon themselves to collect and recycle the plastic, cardboard and other items. At a later stage the volume of the recycling becomes overwhelming and the organization starts to buy recycling containers.

The culture-first approach generally lasts longer and has proven to be more effective. The participants have decided they want to recycle and they find ways of doing so by committing. The container-first group like the idea of recycling but are not really committed and once the novelty wears off so does the desire to recycle.

Recycling containers range from basic to chic, match your recycling culture & your container

If you need a container there are many organizations which supply them. They come in a range of styles and colours and prices. Some containers are industrial in appearance, robust and designed to stay outdoors. Others look very chic, usually found in shopping centres, office buildings and airports. Some containers are purpose built to deal with specific requirements like restaurant kitchens. Recycling containers range from plastic to wood and metal.

If, however, you are serious about recycling we suggest you first change the culture in the organization. You are more likely to have a sustainable result and you may well save yourself unnecessary costs.

Meanwhile progress with the informal market continues. Informal waste pickers – usually referred to as scavengers or waste pickers – are everywhere. We see them pushing trolleys, carts or bicycles with bags filled with cardboard, plastic and other recyclables on streets and elsewhere. Some pickers go through the residential wheelie bins put out for waste collection. Others are to be found working on disposal sites while living alongside.

This is not a problem unique to South Africa, I think these people work on every continent and most countries. Leaving aside, for the moment, the health issues informal waste pickers provide two services. Firstly they generally manage to sustain themselves and their families even if it is a hand to mouth existence. Secondly they help recycle a lot of waste which would otherwise end up in a dump or in the sea. The number engaged in this industry in South Africa is unknown as is the volume of material they recycle. By its very nature the informal sector is largely immeasurable.

The mountain of waste we produce is more than enough for everyone

A number of organizations, often churches or municipalities, have tried to regulate or train these pickers. Stellenbosch Municipality produced a RecycleCycle – a tri-cycle with a container to assist with the load. Stellenbosch also introduced a rewards program whereby persons who brought recyclables to a swap shop could be rewarded with goods. Overall the success is limited.

The mountain of waste we produce is more than enough for everyone. I believe there is room for both the formal and informal sectors. The informal sector is able to access areas which the formal sector cannot or which are not financially viable. And the informal sector cannot compete with the capital costs and legislation involved in operating in the formal sector.

As for trying to bring the informal pickers into the formal sector – I don’t believe it will work. The two sectors can work happily side by side.

Recycle Reg
Smart Waste

Image: Postwink