Recycling opportunities

How big is the recycling industry?

Whilst South Africa’s waste industry is massive in terms of job creation the recycling industry will soon be bigger. A mere twenty years ago there was no recycling industry. Now it appears that, in terms of employment, it will soon be bigger than the waste management industry.

Few people are aware of the difference between the industries let alone the complex structures involved. The waste management industry collects and transports waste to various locations, usually landfills. It is capital intensive because of the high cost of purchasing or leasing specialized vehicles. On top of that are high maintenance and labour costs. It survives on high volumes and low margins.

On the whole, the recycling industry avoids the capital costs and is generally manpower intensive instead. It might be more efficient to use imported equipment but the South African market is too small at this stage. Besides, we have an employment crisis at hand, a crisis recycling is in the process of addressing.

The recycling industry is fast becoming a large scale employer in South Africa

The latest statistics show that the waste management industry employs 29 833 people and generates more than 15 billion turnover per annum (source: GreenCape Waste Economy Market Intelligence Report 2017). The recycling industry currently employs fewer people and generates less turnover. But all that is changing rapidly.

The formal recycling sector comprises: collectors, wholesalers, traders, processors, consultants, and specialists in every form of recyclable material. This diverse group of people in turn support an industry which builds and maintains equipment such as bins and balers. Financiers and investors are involved, as are some lobby groups. The industry encompasses government, private and informal players and includes diverse skills and approaches to business.

Collectors vary from large companies, which recycle on sites and operate recycling facilities, to smaller companies – often operating bakkies with a few labourers. The informal sector includes street and landfill pickers. Middlemen operate buyback centres, where cardboard, paper and plastic are delivered by large trucks before being baled and sold.

Others re-engineer the materials, recycling glass, converting plastic into re-engineered pellets, clothing, tables and chairs and other products. Polystyrene is transformed into roof tiles and picture frames.

Farmers recycle large portions of their unsold product and convert grape seed into oil. The commercial sector is becoming more adventurous in finding ways of disposing of expired products and by-products. Food and engine oil can be reprocessed or converted into bio-diesel. Wood can be repurposed into all manner of useful items.

From collectors to traders and even event organisers, the recycling industry employment reach is massive

Traders make up an important part of the industry, buying and selling excess waste products. There is an online trading platform which works very well. Researchers collect and analyse data and put out papers. Some events and conferences are aimed solely at the recycling industry.

Steel is the easiest material to collect and recycle and scrap yards require a section for themselves. Having been around the longest, scrap yards operate independently and don’t generally associate with the rest of the recycling industry.

There are areas of specialization: vermiculture (worm farms), composting and pyrolysis. A new comer is fly farming as well as a waste to energy plant. Some have found ways of recycling dog faeces and a myriad other materials.

The majority of the recyclers are already organized into industry bodies and others are in the process of doing so. These bodies offer platforms providing support, information, training and market intelligence to their members and the public.

What makes it difficult to calculate the numbers employed in the recycling sector is the informal sector. This sector may be defined as those people who are unable to work in the formal sector or who choose not to. Never mind their status they provide a service – not only in South Africa but in large parts of the world.

With so much innovation and the energy being put into recycling world-wide it makes sense that the government sees recycling as a major opportunity for job creation. The number of jobs, the minimal skills required and the potential employment of women makes recycling an ideal job creation target.

Smart Waste has started assisting organizations obtain permits & licences

There are several consultants and lawyers who specialize in the environmental laws, licenses and permits. Some specialist recyclers, like Smart Waste, are expanding their services assisting organizations obtain permits and licences. We also develop chains of safe custody and design and implement recycling programs and waste management plans for clients.

The large number of players raises the question whether the sector is already overcrowded. In some areas it is; too many players chase the same few clients. However the sector is still growing strongly as a result of a growing population, a growing middle class and an awareness that everyone needs to recycle and not waste any more.

Taken as a whole the recycling industry is huge and growing.  Watch this space.

Recycle Reg
Smart Waste

Image: Andrew Kartende

This article was first published in Shopping and Retail Magazine