How good are you at recycling plastic? Play our game and learn more
By Nabeela Karim
Before binning a plastic item, ask the following: can this be recycled? And, if not, what happens if it is left in nature? In South Africa, The Dirty Dozen™ are the 12 plastic items most commonly found on our beaches and rocky shores. They largely represent our consumer habits, in terms of packaging for on-the-go food and beverages, according to The Beach Co-op.
Play our The Dirty Dozen™ beach clean-up game to find out which items can be recycled or not. And, then read more about how you can avoid these items and what the recycling options for these items are in South Africa. *
How to play
Click and drag each plastic item into one of two bin options and see how well you understand plastic recycling.
What’s the problem with plastic?
Global plastic production has risen exponentially over the last decades – now amounting to some 380 million tonnes per year. Since its invention in the late 1800s, plastic has slowly become ubiquitous in our lives – in our homes, streets, and oceans – to such an extent that plastic is, quite literally, everywhere.
Almost 80,000 tonnes of plastics leak into the oceans and rivers of South Africa each year, making up 3% of the plastic waste generated in the country every year.
“The qualities that make plastics such a useful material (for example, their durability and lightweight nature) are the same characteristics that make them problematic when they leak into the environment as waste,” says Oliver Bonstein from The SA Plastics Pact.
This increasing plastic pollution is causing immense harm and has negative impacts on natural ecosystems, communities, and human health.
While this all sounds like doom and gloom, we can play our part in cleaning up the planet – starting with The Dirty Dozen™.
First, How can we avoid The Dirty Dozen™?
Recycling is the last R in ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ for a reason. In the hierarchy of waste, recycling should be the last resort. Other waste management practices can help us to reduce our waste.
This starts with reducing and reusing what we consume. When we buy less, we create less waste. Making informed decisions and choosing products that can be used several times, will reduce our need to replace these items and limit our waste.
“Prevention is better than trying to sort out materials at the end of life. If you need the product then try to ensure it is reusable,” says Lorren de Kock from WWF’s Circular Plastics Economy Programme.
So, before we discuss recycling options, let’s set the record clear: The best way to help reduce plastic pollution is to reduce or avoid using these problem plastics in the first place.
The Dirty Dozen™ largely represent our consumer habits, in terms of packaging for on-the-go food and beverages and were chosen as indicators of the most significant sources of plastic litter from ocean vessels, land-based sources and beach users. If we can’t avoid using certain products – or you find them during a beach cleanup – you need to know how to recycle them responsibly. Here are a few tips on how to avoid them:
Purchase an alternative such as bamboo, steel, copper, pasta, rice, paper, reusable silicone straws
Get a refillable lighter
Electronic fuel-free lighter (USB charged) or Rechargeable lighter
Use a reusable bottle or flask (glass, ceramic, stainless steel, plant-based plastics)
Boxed or Paper bottles
Buy in bulk (e.g. 2L rather than 330ml)
Use a reusable bottle or flask (glass, ceramic, stainless steel, plant-based plastics)
Boxed water (or paper bottles
Buy in bulk (e.g. 5L rather than 250ml)
Use a reusable bottle / flask – means no disposable lids
Use a tote bag
Reuse fabric bag
Reuse paper bags
Avoid packaged food or try and buy in bulk
Choose a brand that comes in bags that you can recycle or reutilize
Make chips at home
Encourage restaurants to serve their sweets from a sweet dispenser as opposed to individually wrapped sweets
Paper-based candy wrappers
Buy in bulk from dispenser
Candy paper box
Purchase bamboo, wooden or paper versions
Fluid ear washes, organic cotton makeup pads or a reusable silicon swab like, or nothing (WWF)
Purchase paper or wooden versions
Never leave fishing tackle behind. Take it home
Take part in Line recycling scheme
Buy recycled fishing line
Rather use LED lights or avoid all together
Reusable glow stick (possible LED)
Get to know your plastics (and codes)
Becoming an effective plastic recycler starts with knowing your plastics. Recycling plastic can be a confusing and complicated process in South Africa, so we’re here to break it down for you.
“Consumers have a role to play in this new economy, particularly in the realm of recycling where they can both choose recyclable plastics, and take steps to see that they are indeed recycled,” says Bonstein.
There are several different types of plastics – some can be recycled, others cannot. Knowing the difference in plastic products will not only help you make more informed decisions around plastic usage, but also about how to discard them correctly.
The number displayed in the three chasing arrows on the packaging identifies the type of plastic it is. The following plastics are recyclable in South Africa:
#1 PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
#2 / #4 / #5 Polyolefins
The following plastics cannot be recycled:
#3 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
This hard and rigid plastic, marked #3, is often used for plumbing and credit cards.
The final category, marked #7, are plastics that don’t fall into the above categories. While these aren’t very common and comprise a variety of plastics, just know that they aren’t recyclable. These include CDs and lighting fixtures.
Some products are a mix of different types of plastics and can include other materials. These are called multi-layer materials e.g. chip packets, sachets and chocolate wrappers. These products are hard to separate and recycle accordingly.
Plastics that can be recycled easily are mostly made from a single type of plastic monomer material.
Every town is different
Another problem we face with recycling is that some areas may not have the facilities to recycle certain products. This makes it expensive in terms of transporting materials where they need to be recycled and the economics aren’t always worth it. The recycled material is not worth it and does not cover the cost of the labour and fuel needed to get the material there.
How to find out the recycling options in your area:
- Take a look at this recycling map created by the Sustainable Seas Trust. Zoom into your area to see the recycling drop off sites nearest to you, and what can be recycled there.
- Take a look at PETCO’s (the South African PET Recycling Company) website to find a drop-off site, buy-back centre or collection service for your recyclables.
- Contact private recycling collections businesses – for example, Regenize or Recycle 1st in Cape Town – that are active in your area to ask about what kinds of recyclables they accept and how best to sign up for their services.
- If you are based in Cape Town, check out the Cape Town Green Map.
- Contact your local municipality to find out if there are any items that they do not recycle.
Despite talk of recycling becoming popular and mainstream in our societies, it is still not a widespread practice. And, those who do recycle are often not doing it correctly or most effectively.
How to (actually) recycle
Now that you know your plastics, you can sort your waste and recycle accordingly. Follow these steps:
Research before you recycle
At the shelf, check the packaging of the products you want to purchase to see if it is recyclable. This information can usually be found on the back of the product. Do research on recycling depots or collection services in your area to find out which plastics they accept. Most recycling companies can provide a list and description of the types of plastic that they collect.
When it comes to rinsing products, we recommend you only clean “stinky” products that would be unpleasant for a sorter. For example, milk and tuna cans can bring pests into the house, and dairy containers don’t smell good after a few days or weeks.
“Contaminated plastic items, even though recyclable, have a lower value and a high probability of not being collected,” says de Kock.
When you do rince, to save water, always rinse with used dishwashing water. The materials will be washed thoroughly when they get to the recycling plant.
Ensure that you have somewhere to keep your recyclables. It is advisable to get a separate recycling bin and clear bags for recycling, and another bin with a black bag for non-recyclables. Ideally, one would have a third bin for compost.
Drop off at your nearest and correct depot or give it to a collector
Once all your recyclables have been sorted, stop by your local depot to drop your waste off for recycling! You can also leave your recyclables in a clear bag on top or next to your waste bin on municipal bin collection day. There are many waste collectors who, on bin collection day, sort through our bins looking for valuable recyclables. You can make their lives easier by separating the materials for them.
“It is important to only put recyclable materials into the recycling stream, as it causes big losses and waste to process non-recyclable materials through a recycling sorting station only to redirect it back to a landfill,” says Bonstein.
Give thanks to your local collectors
Waste pickers or collectors are environmental heroes who play an important role in the recycling industry in South Africa. They sort recyclable materials from non-recyclable waste in residential bins and landfills along their established routes.
Collectors salvage recyclables that most residents throw into the bins destined for landfills. By separating your recyclables, it creates an income for waste collectors and allows them to work in a dignified manner. This is often thankless work that often goes unnoticed, so make an effort to show your gratitude for your local recycling heroes.
We hope that this has made plastic recycling seem less daunting and complicated for you. Taking these steps can save plastics from washing into the oceans and harming our planet. When it comes to implementing sustainable practices, it starts with changing our habits and tuning into a lifestyle that is slower, kinder, and more considered.
Feature and game designed by Stella Hertantyo and Gerlinde Vassen. Art work by Moss and Sea Studio and Canva. The ‘How to Recycle’ section was written and approved by Kara Levy at PETCO. Thanks to WWF South Africa and the Plastics Pact for input. Thank you Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages for sponsoring Plastic Free Mzansi 2022. And finally, this article was inspired by a feature on the New York Times. *The game does not work on mobile.
Note: This article has been updated on 27 February 2023 so that the fact reflects “Global plastic production has risen exponentially over the last decades – now amounting to some 380 million tonnes per year” as opposed to 400 million tonnes.