Recycling was one of the first changes I made when I decided to live more sustainably.

At first I implemented a two-bin system in my home. One bin was for recyclables like plastic, glass, metal, Tetra Pak and cardboard, and another for food waste and non-recyclables. Once the first bin was full, I took the recyclables to a drop-off-station at a nearby school.

Four years later, I upgraded to a four-bin system with signage that helps people sort correctly. One bin is for recyclables, one for non-recyclable plastics (that we Eco-brick to avoid them reaching landfill), one for organic waste (which we use to make compost) and another for general landfill waste (which we keep to a minimum).

When I started, I thought recycling was simple, that it was just a matter of following the general categories of what can and can’t be recycled. But, as I did more research into low-waste living and the processes of recycling, I learned my single biggest lesson: not all plastics are created equal.

The biggest confusion around plastic recycling is the fact that the appearance of the “triangular arrows”, similar to that of the universal recycling sign, does not indicate that a plastic item can be recycled. Inside each sign, there is usually a number. These numbers are resin identification codes. They identify what type of plastic the item is made from and assist recyclers in sorting plastics into correct recycling streams.

Typically, plastic resin codes range from one to seven. One, two, four and five are widely recyclable in South Africa. Three and six often depend on the recycler. Seven cannot be recycled locally at all and has traditionally not been recycled in overseas markets either.

The only way to be sure what can and can’t be recycled is to find out from the company that is responsible for your recycling. I asked ours what happens to unmarked plastics to find out that they cannot be recycled because they cannot be sorted. I also learnt that the recycling market changes constantly depending on what buyers want. It’s really important to check regularly for updates on any changes.

After doing this for years, these are hacks I can offer:

*Look for the right place to drop off your recyclables or the right curbside recycling company for you. Here’s a list of South Africa’s curbside recycling company’s put together by Post Wink.

*Implement (at the very least) a two-bin system to separate your waste.

*Contact your recycler to find out what they do and don’t take.

*Clean, dry and squash your recyclables before they go into the recycling bin.

*Get to know your plastic resin codes and check plastics for their recyclability before you buy the product. (If you can, avoid the plastics that are not recyclable otherwise eco-brick them.)

*Create fun signs in your house to help you, your housemates/family and your visitors correctly use your bins.

When it comes to reducing waste, remember that whilst recycling is a great place to start, it’s a bad place to stop. Rethinking, reducing and refusing waste has to be paired with an end-of-pipe solution.

Sarah writes a monthly column, Talking Rubbish, for Twyg. 

Image credits: Adobe Stock