Uprooting the myths surrounding the waste economy

South Africans produce a staggering amount of municipal waste. The national Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) estimated that we generated 111 million tonnes of waste in 2016. This recyclable waste is worth billions to the economy and yet the vast majority ends up in landfill sites. 

The waste industry in South Africa consists primarily of waste collection and land-filling, with a limited amount of recycling. Simply sending waste to landfills is not  sustainable, especially in the light of the drive towards a green economy. South Africa is aiming to reach a target of 20% waste division this year so the drive for waste to be diverted from landfill towards recycling and recovery is increasing and under pressure for innovative solutions – a chance for promising new businesses and much-needed jobs says InvestSA.

According to DEA (2017), the waste economy contributed approximately R24.3 billion to the South African GDP in 2016. It provided 36 000 formal jobs and supported an estimated 80 000 informal jobs/ livelihoods. However, if 100% of the identified 13 waste streams could be recycled these opportunities could further unlock R11.5 billion per year by 2023 by diverting up to 20 million tonnes of waste (DEA 2017). The anticipated spin-offs could include 45 000 additional formal jobs and 82 000 indirect jobs, as well as the creation of 4 300 SMME explains GreenCape. Legislation has been passed to help unlock this market worth billions through recycling of metals, plastics, paper, glass, e-waste and more. 

When it comes to living sustainably and waste management, we tend to be faced with multiple myths to what really constitutes sustainable and useful waste management.

Whether it’s thinking that if the waste is out of sight and mind then we’ll all be fine, or there is no money in recycling, there are several misconceptions that could be worsening our waste imprint on the environment.

Here are six common myths that surround the waste economy and why you need to throw them out:

Landfills are the solution
In 2011 90% of an estimated 59 million tonnes of general waste produced in South Africa ended up in landfills. The growth in waste and a shortage of suitable land for waste disposal means that South Africa is running out of landfill space. The truth is that unfortunately landfills tend to ignore the cost of waste as well as the opportunity to preserve resources. Additionally, aside from the fact that we are literally dumping our waste into the earth – contaminating the soil and water of the region, hazardous materials and substances often find their way to these landfills and the dumping of potentially useful materials means the economy continues to heavily rely on our limited natural resources.

Only big companies need worry about sustainable practices
There’s a common misconception that you need a big enterprise and official, dedicated, sustainability team and practice in place to be mindful about waste processes. However, even small businesses and companies can implement sustainable waste and recycling practices that are useful and cost effective to their business. 

Recycling is enough
While recycling is a great start to sustainable waste management, the current system is far from perfect and it can only do so much. Recycling does help spare natural resources and even stimulates the economy, but more can be done to avoid ‘extra waste’ - by avoiding buying items you don’t need, choosing products with less packaging and made from recyclable materials and donating older items rather than throwing them out. 

There’s no money in waste
The idea that waste is worthless needs to change to truly make a difference to the environment and the economy. Plastics, metals, scraps, glass, clothing, and other items we throw away daily all have a value which can be recovered in part through recycling efforts. The opportunities for entrepreneurs to tap into the recycling industry and create a profitable business are extensive across all 13 waste streams.

Biodegradable waste is okay

It’s tempting to believe that biodegradable waste is the ultimate solution and that it will break down naturally in landfills. However, when these products do break down they release greenhouse gasses into the air – affecting the atmosphere and contributing to climate change and global warming. 

One person can’t make a difference

Never underestimate the power and impact of doing your part. Every sustainable act counts, in fact, it has been found that recycling just one aluminium can save up enough energy to power a television for three hours!

So, do your part, no matter how big or small and be wary of these myths that need to be tossed out for good. 



This post is produced for the Gauteng Industrial Symbiosis Programme’s (GISP) Innovation Hub and created by BrandStudio24.