Recycle responsibly – don’t be a wishcycler

Recycle responsibly – don’t be a wishcycler

Each year, an estimated 800 to 1 000 new words are added to English language dictionaries. In 2021, one of those was ‘wishcycling’.

Wishcycling is defined as ‘the practice of putting something in a recycling bin without being certain that it is actually recyclable’. Often, this can make every other item unusable and require the contents to be dumped in a landfill, creating additional plastic waste.

Contaminating the waste stream with material that is not actually recyclable makes the sorting process more costly because it requires extra labour in countries like South Africa where recycling is largely sorted manually. In countries where machinery is used to sort recycling, wishcycling can damage sorting systems and equipment and depress an already fragile trading market.

Explaining the wishcycling phenomenon, PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, Jessica Heiges, and Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Kate O’Neill, wrote that the mantra for responsible recycling is ‘When in doubt, throw it out’. In other words, only place material that truly can be recycled in your bin.

South African National Bottled Water Association CEO, Charlotte Metcalf, has a wish of her own: That environmentalists and consumers in South Africa would stop criticising PET, the recyclable and food-grade plastic most often used for beverage bottles, as the cause of the plastic waste that pollutes our environment.

As a result of this criticism, she said, there are various alternatives being touted to consumers, manufacturers, retailers, hoteliers and restauranteurs, including biodegradable and compostable plastics, cardboard or paper bottles or cartons, cans, and glass recycling or refilling.

“But the solution is not as simple as replacing PET with one of these alternatives, no matter what the people who sell them say,” stressed Metcalf.

“This is South Africa, and we need to seriously consider how these alternatives perform in a South African context, not Sweden, Germany, Japan, Australia or the UK and USA. Anything else is just simply ‘wishcycling’.”

Metcalf explained that, forgetting for a moment that people litter, not inanimate objects which have been made to be recycled, it is important to consider the following:

  • Pre-Covid lockdowns, 503 600 tons of plastics waste was collected for recycling in 2019. Of this, more than half (362 800 tons) was packaging – giving South Africa an input recycling rate of 45.7%. (Source: Plastics SA)

  • South Africa’s recycling ecosystem, when it comes to PET, is an even more efficient system. 62% of all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic placed on the market in 2019 (pre-Covid) was recycled. (Source: PETCO) This fell during the Covid lockdowns and as reactions to the pandemic restricted the movement of people, hence the collectors.

  • South Africa’s recycling ecosystem, in general, is not set up to handle the packaging alternatives currently making waves overseas. To recycle or process biodegradable and compostable plastics, and cardboard or paper bottles and cartons, would require considerable investment in new equipment and infrastructure and these packaging alternatives would simply be sent to landfill. If these alternatives are used, they will simply go to landfill.

  • Glass refilling systems are not as green as they are made out to be given the amount of water they use, and further do not comply with South Africa’s food and beverage legislation. While tins do conform and are recyclable, the energy required to make them and recycle them is exorbitant.

She pointed to an argument made by WWF sustainable materials specialist Paula Chin in a recent Packaging Insights interview. You can read the full interview here:

“Ms Chin maintains that replacing plastic with alternative packaging materials is not the answer to pollution and may even worsen various industries’ environmental impact. Instead, she believes a systems-based approach focusing on reuse and refill models must be implemented in which policymakers and businesses are held fully accountable.

“This is a way forward that SANBWA and its members fully buy into. In the South African context, there is already enormous pressure to reduce the amount of packaging waste sent to our country’s landfills or which ends up as visible litter in the environment.

“As a result, the Government is implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP) legislation with respect to packaging. And, within this, the adoption of ‘design for recycling’ and ‘a circular economy’ play a big role, and one that the whole value chain needs to be a part of.

“However, we can only do so if our population changes its behaviour when it comes to littering and recycling, and when we are fully aware of and educated about the issues the country’s recycling industry faces,” she added.

As a responsible corporate citizen, SANBWA is playing its part to discourage plastic waste:

  • Its members’ primary concern is the health, safety and pleasure of their consumers. They therefore willingly conform to the extremely stringent safety and quality measures contained in the SANBWA Bottled Water Standard, which includes environmental stewardship.

  • SANBWA’s environmental stewardship protocols address measures to ensure source sustainability and protection, water usage minimisation, energy efficiency, solid waste minimisation, and support post-consumer recycling initiatives.

As an organisation, SANBWA was among the first worldwide to require its members to follow specific recycling guidelines. In this respect, it was advised by PETCO in South Africa (the local plastic industry’s first joint effort to self-regulate post-consumer PET recycling).

It expects members to:

  • Register as producers of waste, join a recycling NGO and pay toward the recycling levy for every ton of packaging used

  • add the ‘please recycle’ sign on all labels.

  • Design for recycling by using recycling friendly materials or recycling optimal materials as stipulated in the SANBWA Bottled Water Standard


Issued on behalf of

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