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Recycle this thought

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Save the planet

Photo by Markus Spiske (Pexels)

I'm a new resident of the UK moving from South Africa, and for the first two years, it was extremely tough adapting to a country that is so very different to my own. One of the things that struck me was the numerous posters and messages in the UK around recycling.

We do have recycling in South Africa, but usually, these recycling projects are privatised and one has to collect a few bags of plastic or paper before making the trip to the recycling centre. I should add that most of us use our cars – because of the distances and also because of the lack of any kind of suitable transport infrastructure.

In my previous home in Johannesburg, we would put our bins weekly onto the road and a truck would come and collect the rubbish. There were no separate bins for reusable items. On the bin day, a group of men would descend in a particular suburb and go through the rubbish bins looking for the recycling materials. They would drag handmade trolleys made out of scrap metal and usually, the wheels were stolen from shopping trolleys. At the end of the day, one would marvel at the enormous loads they were managing to balance on these makeshift contraptions. They would take their recyclables to a recycling centre and get paid. I am sure the money was pitiful, but probably enough for them to eat a meal.

As a journalist, I once interviewed a few people who made their living as dump scavengers. They would go to the huge municipal dumps where mountains of rubbish would lie waiting to be compacted or buried. One woman I interviewed allowed me to go to her shack in nearby Alexandra where she showed me how she re-purposed items.

A fridge was a cupboard, she had made shelves from plastic crates and she had salvaged pots and pans for cooking. I was amazed at how neat her shack was and how she had turned these throw-away items into perfectly usable and functioning furniture.

She had even found a few dolls and fluffy toys she had washed and mended and given to her young daughter. On their double bed (also salvaged) she had a cushion that said; "Home Sweet Home". She told me that one of the hazards of dump scavenging was the injuries from sharp objects or chemicals. They tried to use Wellington boots on their feet and thick gloves to protect their hands. In the hot sweltering sun, this must have been so uncomfortable.

This memory came to me when my brother (also in the UK) invited me to go to the local municipal dump where he was going to drop off some garden waste. Waste management in the UK is taken very seriously. You have to book a slot. Put the waste into the correct bins and everything is watched by supervisors. I was amazed that certain items had been salvaged and were available in a little shop. To me these items were perfect – not broken, perhaps a little outdated but perfectly useable.

What appalled me was the number of other items being thrown away – beds, prams, shelves, bicycles. My first thought was to imagine what people in Africa could do with these items.

Africans are incredibly resilient and creative in a make-do fashion. They can re-purpose items and fix items; nothing goes to waste

I remember reading an article that said that if you compared an affluent suburb and a squatter camp (informal settlement) the squatter camp would have a much lower carbon footprint because of the way they re-used items. Affluent suburbs have a "throw-away mentality".

It is unsurprising that in the United Kingdom which is relatively affluent – people throw so much away. I wish I could miraculously teleport these throw-away items to Africa where they would be so appreciated. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw how many lovely things were being given away on community groups. On the way to my niece's school, there would be children's books left out on a wall, with a sign saying – “Help yourself.” I was intrigued when I saw the local train station had a book library and people who would commute would drop off and take books as they needed.

The other thing about the UK is the fantastic amount of recycling done in charity shops. I am a convert of buying clothes and gifts in these shops. For me it is like a treasure hunt … you don't know what you are going to find and for me, the fact that these items have been pre-loved just adds value. There are a few charity or second-hand shops in South Africa, but the fact is they are not commonplace. It is more common for affluent employers to give unused items or dated items to their staffers.

I applaud the UK for its system of recycling but feel that simply recycling items only offers a partial solution to the crisis of waste and to the ongoing inequalities in our economy.

More and more environmentalists are looking beyond recycling to a circular economy.

A circular economy consists of 5 consumerism-altering concepts – Reducing, Reusing, Refurbishing, Repairing and Recycling.

In Africa, or elsewhere in the third world, poverty means that people are used to re-using, repairing and recycling items in their daily lives. Wasteful consumerism is the curse of the first world where the daily economy is driven by greed and consistent marketing to create false demand.

The climate crisis has forced many people to really look at the consequences of their actions. The ReTuna Recycling Galleria, in Sweden is in the city of Eskilstuna, here an entire mall is dedicated to the supply of re-useable items and to the fixing of broken items. People take their broken items to be repaired and they can buy a refurbished item instead of buying something new.

In a perfect world, there should be enough for everyone - items that are still usable should be sent to Africa and other poorer economies as part of a global circular economy. Old items can be given to the needy. Skills can be learned and waste can be eliminated.

One of the things I miss from Africa is the people's ability to take pleasure from the simple things. On a few occasions, before I moved to the UK, I gave my mother's gardener a lift home. The first time his bicycle had a flat tyre, the journey was about 15 kilometres, this was way farther than I expected. As we turned into the suburb where he lived on the far outskirts of town, I noticed a few things.

In this township, there was a mixture of two-room houses and metal sheet shacks. In some of these tiny gardens, there were proudly tended flower gardens offering up a few spots of brightness. The children walked everywhere and were "free-range" unlike the city children who live behind doors and walls. It was after school and like any children they wanted to play games with their friends. I watched bemused as they had a lively wheelbarrow race up and down the bumpy dirt road. On a street corner, some kids had acquired an old mattress with a few springs left and were using it as a makeshift trampoline. I marvelled at the back flips and somersaults – I guess health and safety would be a huge issue here in the UK. But not there.

I often gave the gardener a lift home after that, enjoying the new sights and sounds and friendly waves. I realised how hard it must have been for him to cycle such a long way after a hard day's physical work, making the arduous journey in all weather.

But I digress - I have become much more mindful about recycling, but I am always aware that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Perhaps I have planted a seed in someone's mind?

TRISH BEAVER-GUY is a blogger, journalist and creative communications consultant. She loves murder mysteries, the beauty of nature and eating chocolate. You can read more of her stories on her blogs -

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