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The Recycle Conundrum

The Recycling Conundrum

We all know the mantra reduce, reuse, recycle. 

To 'reduce' the consumption of an item has clear environments benefits - less is produced meaning fewer resources are used and less pollution created. The same can be said when considering the idea of 'reuse'. But to 'recycle'? How effective is recycling, actually? How many times can an item really be recycled before it loses all economic value? 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Before we begin discussing the merits of different materials in the context of recycling, some formal definitions are in order:


To reduce is simply to create less waste. It is the best method for keeping our Earth clean. Why? Because it stops the problem at the source. By making less waste in the first place, there is less mess to clean up.


To reuse is to take old items that you might otherwise throw away and instead find a new use for them. Reusing helps in situations where it isn't possible to reduce.


To recycle is to change old products into new ones that have economic value. Closed-loop recycling is the gold standard in the recycling world and is achieved when an old product such as an aluminium can is recycled back into an aluminium can.

Recyclable Materials

There is, however, often a finite number of times materials can be recycled before they are unusable and have to go to landfill. Recycling is often not the endless loop people imagine it to be. In this regard, not all materials are created equal.


We all love glass and for good reason. Glass is infinitely recyclable without ever losing its clarity or purity. It also fully meets the formal definition of a 'closed-loop system, i.e. bottle-to-bottle recycling (a bottle becomes a new bottle). 

Recycling glass has huge environmental benefits; it saves landfill space, saves raw materials, lessens the demand for energy, and reduces CO2 emissions.

Best of all - often when you recycle glass, it is reused instead - which has even greater environmental benefits. 

To recycle glass in South Africa, check out The Glass Recycling Company


The recycling of aluminium products is a closed-loop process that can be repeated indefinitely. Unlike plastic, the life of an aluminium product doesn’t stop after use. Regardless of the product – cans, window frames, doors or cars – the aluminium itself is not consumed, only used.

Recycling a single aluminium can will avoid CO2 emissions equivalent to a +/- 2km car journey (when compared to using virgin aluminium). Aluminium recycling is also very fast and a recycled can, could be reincarnated back on the supermarket shelf as another beverage can within 60 days.

To find out more about aluminium cans and recycling in South Africa, check out CAN DO


Plastic... recyclings dirty little secret. Recycling plastic is a misnomer, fraudulent even.

There is only a tiny fraction of plastics which can actually be recycled. But even these plastics have a limited lifespan.

At best, in an ideal world, recyclable plastics can be recycled 2-3 times before losing all economic value and structural integrity. On planet Earth, 'in real life', when recycled (~9% of the time), recyclable plastics are often recycled down into low-grade plastics which cannot be recycled. Practically speaking recyclable plastics are recycled once. 

At the end of their useful life, they end up in our natural world, polluting our oceans, waterways, forests, cities and even the air we breathe. 

A note on plastic types

 Not all plastics are created equal. See the infographic below to find out which plastics are actually "recyclable" and "recycled" in South Africa.

Plastic Resin Codes for Recycling In South Africa

To find out more about plastic recycling in South Africa, The SA Plastic Pact


In South Africa, we know how to recycle paper. While the global paper-recycling rate is 58%, we achieve a rate 10% more - 68.4%.

Our high recycling rate is laudable as making virgin paper is almost certainly the third-largest industrial use of energy on the planet. But much like plastic, paper is limited in its ability to be recycled.

Papers ability to be recycled decreases after every reuse. Paper is made up of long fibres, and every time it is recycled, those fibres shorten. The average number of times your printer paper can be recycled is about five to seven times.

After that, the fibres become too short and can’t be made into high-quality copier paper. From then on, these paper fibres/waste are used for things such as newspaper or egg cartons.
To find out more about paper recycling in South Africa, check out The Paper Story

For more info about climate change, the plastic crisis and our beautiful planet subscribe to The Mielie Maverick. It’s our weekly newsletter.

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