Smoke and mirrors stuff must be cleanly dealt with
Outgoing WildTrust CEO, Andrew Venter, spills a few secrets about recycling in South Africa and enthuses about the potential for change. Laura du Toit holds up the mirror.
First published by Sunday Tribune
GLASS recycling in South Africa is a “disaster”, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal where only a tiny fraction of the stuff is reprocessed.
Part of the problem is that producing glass from virgin materials remains too cheap. Glass makers do not bear the real environmental cost of extracting the raw materials – chiefly river sand – which is illegally mined.
That’s the view of Dr Andrew Venter, outgoing chief executive officer of the Wildlands Conservation Trust (WildTrust). It is one of the country’s largest environmental not-for-profit organisations.
Venter said it made little financial sense for the manufacturers to buy recycled materials to make new glass.
“There’s about 20 million kilograms of glass that comes into KZN every month. Of that, less than 1 million kilograms get recycled. It’s smoke and mirrors from the industry – they don’t want you to know that in KZN, the recycling rate is less than 5%,” he said.
The good news is that there are alternatives. Venter has committed himself to putting a few into action.
The 51-year-old leaves the WildTrust after 19 years at the helm and will be taking over the Trust’s Recycling for Life project.
The project has over 500 “waste-preneurs” and an extensive network of schools and businesses who collect about 4200 tonnes of trash a year. Glass accounts for about 50% of this, said Venter.
Andrew Venter (left) has helped spearhead innovative technology that turns unrecyclable crisp packets and glass waste into eco-bricks.
Click here to read Du Toit’s detailed interview with Andrew Venter, or download the pdf of the interview transcript.
Looking back over the 19 years of work, Venter said WildTrust had contributed significantly to the changing landscape of conversation in South Africa. It had also helped to improve the lives of many thousands of people, he said.
“But on the whole, we’ve barely scratched the surface,” added Venter. “The biggest challenge has been that we’ve done an amazing amount of stuff, but actually (on the bigger picture front), I realise we’ve hardly done anything.”
Closing the loop
On the recycling front, Venter said: “We’re trying to shift the glass recycling model to a model where the glass is crushed and used as a substitute for filter type mechanisms.”
Currently filter glass is imported into South Africa
When it comes to plastic, the recycling figures are on a par with glass. Again, Venter reckons a new approach is needed.
“About 60% of plastic is un-recyclable, the other 40% is recyclable, but of that only about 43% is actually recycled. If you start doing that 100%, you’re sitting at the reality that about 15% of plastic is recycled. The rest is not, either because it can’t be or it’s just not,” he said.
What can be done?
“We’ve demonstrated that it’s possible, at a local level, to take ice-cream containers, margarine containers, yogurt containers, put them in one end of a machine and get diesel out the end, which you can put into cars. The plastic started as fuel, so to get it back to that stage closes the loop,” said Venter.
Recycling for Life has been successful in taking unrecyclable plastic trash and combining it with glass to make building materials, such as bricks and pavers, says Venter.
In theory, you could put up a plant in a town and “that town can become litter-free because you just suck up that plastic material”
Collecting waste has become a fledgling business for a WildTrust waste-preneur, Sindiswa Sibutswa. Photo: Bukeka Silekwa
Venter said he had been in talks with the WildTrust over the past year to structure his departure. At the same time, the Board had expressed doubts about its ability to continue with the recycling.
“And so, the conversation was whether I could take that with me,” said Venter.
As starters, he will work on restructuring Recycling for Life so that it continues operations. And after that pursue “some really interesting innovations” like the filter glass and plastic-to-diesel ideas.
He suspects that he might still be involved with recycling when he’s “older and greyer” but insists it’s not his real aim.
“I’m not setting up a recycling business. My priority is to find and shape a new role where I have the ability to influence sustainability change at a business leadership and corporate level in South Africa into Africa,” he said.
“Like getting Unilever to say that they’re only going to use recyclable plastic. Roughly 35% of the material they put out is unrecyclable. If they switch that off, at the scale they’re operating, that requires massive change. So those policy shifts are vital, and where I would like to focus,” said Venter.
In recent public statements, Unilever has declared by 2025 all of its packaging will recyclable or compostable. – Additional reporting Matthew Hattingh and Fred Kockott, Roving Reporters
Laura du Toit is a Rhodes University journalism student enrolled on Roving Reporters journalism training programme, Developing Environmental Watchdogs.
He who pays the piper calls the tune. But not so it seems if you’re dealing with a certain hard-to-reach KZN ‘artist’.
A spectular initiative to educate people about plastic waste and how it can be put to good use.