Food for thought: How big is the Recycling Industry?

South Africa’s waste industry is massive and diverse covering a wide range of different sectors and industries. Shopping centres, restaurants and all forms of retail are expected to – and indeed are – playing an ever increasing and responsible role in the recycling of food and other waste to international standards.

This article aims to provide our readers with the Bigger Picture of recycling in order to instil a better understanding of the importance of recycling at every level.

In terms of job creation the recycling industry is growing rapidly. A mere twenty years ago there was no recycling industry and now it appears that in terms of employment it will shortly be bigger than the waste management industry.

Few people are aware of the difference between the industries let alone the complex structures involved. The waste management industry collects and transports waste to various locations, usually landfills. It is capital intensive because of the high cost of purchasing or leasing specialized vehicles. On top of that are high maintenance and labour costs. It survives on high volumes and low margins.

In the main, the recycling industry avoids the capital costs and is generally manpower intensive instead. It might be more efficient to use imported equipment but our markets are too small and the distances too great to make it viable. Besides, we have an abundance of labour and a shortage of jobs.

The latest statistics show that the waste management industry employs 29 833 people and generates more than 15 billion turnover per annum*. The recycling industry presently employs fewer people and generates less turnover. But all that is changing.

The formal recycling sector comprises: collectors, wholesalers, traders, processors, consultants, and specialists in every material. This diverse group of people in turn support an industry which builds and maintains equipment such as bins and balers. Financiers and investors are involved as are some lobby groups. Not only is the industry diverse in skills but also in approaches to business which range from government to private to informal.

Some specialist recyclers, like Smart Waste, are expanding their services assisting organizations obtain permits and licences, develop chains of safe custody and design and implement their own recycling programs and waste management plans

Collectors vary from large companies, which recycle on sites and operate recycling facilities, through many smaller companies – often operating bakkies with a few labourers – and include street and landfill pickers. Middlemen operate buyback centres, and large warehouses where cardboard, paper and plastic are delivered by large trucks to be baled and shipped off to factories.

Others re-engineer the materials, recycling old glass into new glass, converting plastic into re-engineered pellets, clothing, tables and chairs and a host of other products. Polystyrene is transformed into roof tiles and picture frames.

Farmers recycle large portions of their product not sold and convert grape seed into oil. The commercial sector is becoming more adventurous in finding ways of disposing of expired products and by-products. Food and engine oil can be reprocessed or converted into bio-diesel. Wood can be repurposed into all manner of articles.

Traders make up an important part of the industry, buying and selling excess waste products. There is an online trading platform which works very well. Researchers collect and analyse data and put out papers. Some events and conferences are aimed solely at the recycling industry.

Steel is the easiest material to collect and recycle and scrap yards require a section for themselves. Having been around the longest, scrap yards operate independently and don’t generally associate with the rest of the recycling industry.

There are areas of specialization: vermiculture (worm farms), composting and pyrolysis. A new comer is fly farming as well as a waste to energy plant. Some people find ways of recycling dog faeces and a myriad other materials.

The majority of the recyclers are already organized into industry bodies and others are in the process of doing so. These bodies offer platforms providing support, information, training and market intelligence to their members and the public.

What makes it difficult to calculate the numbers employed in the recycling sector is the informal sector. This may be defined as those people who are unable to work in the formal sector or who choose not to. Never mind their status they provide a service – not only in SA but in large parts of the world.

With so much innovation and the energy being put into recycling world-wide it makes sense that the government sees recycling as a major opportunity for job creation. The number of jobs as well as the fact that the jobs are suited to unskilled workers and women make it an ideal job creation target.

There are several consultants and lawyers who specialize in the environmental laws, licenses and permits. Some specialist recyclers, like Smart Waste, are expanding their services assisting organizations obtain permits and licences, develop chains of safe custody and design and implement their own recycling programs and waste management plans.

The large number of players raises the question whether the sector is already overcrowded. In some areas it is; too many players chase the same few clients. However, economic cycles aside, the sector is still growing strongly as a result of a growing population, a growing middle class and an awareness that everyone needs to recycle and not waste any more.

Taken as a whole the recycling industry is huge and growing. Watch this space.

*GreenCape Waste Economy Market Intelligence Report 2017

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