Recycling &Uncategorized26 May 2008 02:26 pm

Mandla blank

The picture that I meant to take of Mandla

These are sad times in South Africa. And though I mostly feel quite distant from the terrible violence against our African neighbours, I have been touched by the tragedy in one, odd way.

For the past two years, a man name Mandla has rung my bell every Monday morning to see if I have any recyclables for him. I first saw him digging through garbage in my neighbourhood during one of my jogs. He was collecting white office paper, so I told him to stop by my house, since I always separate the good white stuff, which fetches a higher price. Ever since, he has made a weekly stop here. And as prices have risen for other commodities, I have given him cartloads of plastic bottles and cans in addition to paper.

I had just decided that it was time to write about Mandla on GreenerHouse. I liked the topic, because I believe that developing this kind of relationship creates meaning out of recycling, spares the collector the indignity and effort of digging through rubbish, and could save homeowners trips to the recycling depot. I had even decided that I would call the post “Meet Mandla.” I was going to take his picture and place it on the website.

It was going to be a good week for Mandla, because I had worked on the cleanup crew for my daughter’s matric dance and had rescued bins full of PET plastic bottles, aluminium cans and steel (tin) cans. I had them waiting at the gate for him. When Mandla didn’t show up last Monday, I didn’t think much of it. But now he hasn’t rung my bell for two weeks, so I know that last week was not a good week for Mandla. We had never discussed his origin; we mostly talked about the prices of various recyclable commodities. But it now seems clear that he was a Zimbabwean. In my experience, most of the hawkers who collect recyclables on foot are from other African nations.

I hope that Mandla is safe, wherever he is, and that someone is giving him lots of white paper to sell.

Global Warming &Recycling &Uncategorized19 Feb 2008 12:02 pm

Mapungubwe Gold Rhino

Any golden white elephants—or rhinos—in your house?

In recent days, the gold price is breaking record after record. Add to that the somewhat weaker rand, and your jewelry box is starting to look like, well, a gold mine.

If you decide to take some profits on a rarely worn bracelet, as I recently did, the environment will benefit even more than your bank account. In November, dozens of South African corporations released data on their greenhouse-gas emissions as part of the South African Carbon Disclosure Project. They should be commended for their effort. Knowing your emissions is a critical first step toward reducing them. Two of the companies were gold miners, and their disclosure came as a shock to me. For each ounce of gold produced by Harmony Gold Mining, 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Yes, read it again, 2.1 tons of CO2 for an ounce of gold. If you don’t believe me, see here.

AngloGold Ashanti had significantly lower figures, probably because it is less dependent on deep underground mines in South Africa, but the average of the two companies still comes out at 1.14 tons per troy ounce. This is not far off from a figure I got using data for the South African gold mining industry as a whole in the year 2000, 1.3 tons of CO2 per troy ounce for electricity usage alone.

Using the 1.14 figure, by my calculations, I would have to drive my Honda Jazz from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back about three times to emit the carbon dioxide contained in a Krugerrand. (And I’m leaving aside the water pollution, local air pollution, and landscape scarring that gold mining causes.)

This might give you some pause when your anniversary next comes up, but it does make the current high gold price a perfect opportunity to recycle some gold and prevent further mining emissions. I found a medal that had no real sentimental value and my wife found a clunky bracelet that she hadn’t worn in more than 20 years. Yesterday, a gold and coin dealer paid me more than R4,000 for the two, thereby saving 783 kilograms of CO2 using to the Anglo/Harmony average. It was like buying a carbon offset, except I got paid for it. I’m considering going back with a pair of silver candlesticks.

I remember that driving all the way to Bedfordview just to sell a little gold gave me a twinge of green guilt. Not anymore. I now realize I could have driven all the way to Bulawayo.

Recycling &Uncategorized10 Feb 2008 10:38 am

Mail & Guardian collect a can
My article on Collect-a-Can is now available on the Mail & Guardian website at this link.

Recycling &Uncategorized08 Feb 2008 08:30 am

collectacanlogocrop.gif          collect a can man

Why are these men smiling? A wheelbarrow full of cans will only get them R2.86 at Collect-a-Can.

My article in the current issue of the Mail & Guardian points out that Collect-a-Can is not living up to its reputation as an energetic catalyst for recycling in South Africa. Instead of paying a premium price to the hawkers who clean up our trash looking for recyclables, Collect-a-can is paying less than the market price and profiting on the export of cans to steel mills in Pakistan.

So where does that leave the consumer who wants to do the right thing with his or her cans? One lesson I have learned is that food cans are actually somewhat more recyclable than drink cans. The food tins that make it to Collect-a-Can have their tin removed for reuse and are melted back into high-quality steel here in South Africa. Drink cans are not likely to end up as new drink cans. They meet a variety of fates, including being used to process cobalt in Botswana and going into lower-quality steels.

I know that the temptation is stronger to throw out a food tin, because of food stuck inside. I pulled one out of my kitchen bin just yesterday. Resist. All of your tins are worth recycling. Aluminium tins, including some deodorant and hair-care aerosols, are by far the most recyclable of all. I have written about this before.

I will continue to recycle drink cans as well. I would prefer “cradle-to-cradle” recycling, which means that the end product is of the same quality as the original, but this is not always possible. Converting hiqh-quality South African steel into lower-quality steel in Pakistan or even into a flux used to process cobalt in Botswana is better than wasting the resource entirely. Since global warming is indeed “global,” it doesn’t matter too much whether the energy is saved in Pakistan or Vanderbijlpark. (From the point of view of Eskom’s crisis, it does matter, but there is little you or I can do to resolve technical steelmaking issues.)

At the shops, if you must decide between disposable plastic, glass and steel packaging for beverages, there is not a strong reason to choose one over the other, so buy the one that is easiest for you to recycle. You might experiment by leaving a bag of each next to your dustbins on collection morning and see which (if any) a hawker will take. I know they will take aluminium and office paper, but in my neighbourhood, the ordinary bottles and cans are usually left alone. So I deliver them to my municipal Pikitup depot when I take grass clippings and leaves for composting. Please report back to Greenerhouse what the street collectors will take in your suburb.

Glass collection bins are becoming easier to find, thanks to The Glass Recycling Company, which has a list of bottle banks here. PET is more valuable per kilogram than any of them, though a kilogram of PET takes up a lot more space. Better by far is to find returnable glass bottles, which are available for the most popular brands from SAB Miller and Coca-Cola. And best of all, of course, is tap water.

Recycling &Uncategorized29 Sep 2007 09:55 am

Mondi Kerbside Recycling

Until now, Mondi’s kerbside paper pick-up service has had just one weakness: they collected every other week. It was a bit of a mental challenge to remember whether the last collection date was one week ago or two.

Strain your brain no longer. I just received a notice in my mailbox that starting October 1 Mondi will now collect weekly in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. (Unfortunately the recycling service does not operate in other cities.) If you don’t know which day of the week they visit your neighbourhood, look for orange bags on the pavement, phone 0800 022 112, or visit

Getting an orange bag takes some effort. Ask for one by phone, and leave a pile of newspapers at the kerb—weighed down by a brick—with a sign begging for a bag. Be persistent. If you’re not sure what can and cannot go in the bag, see this post. The recyclables list is so long that even if you don’t subscribe to a daily newspaper you may be able to fill a bag each week.

The trucks that collect the paper are owned and operated by small businesses, frequently new black entrepreneurs. I traveled around the suburbs for an afternoon with one of them and saw how frustrating it was for him when he would turn his truck down a street and see just a single bag on the kerb—or none at all. With the added convenience of weekly pick-up, every block should now be glowing with orange bags once a week.

Recycling &Uncategorized18 Jul 2007 01:18 pm


Aluminium Roadkill

I can see along my jogging route that Amstel has returned to South Africa. The green cans are starting to litter the road. Until Amstel gets a brewery up and running in South Africa, which could take two years, these are imported from Europe. And they are arriving in aluminium cans.

Two new issues thus face the Amstel drinker. One is that transporting a case of beer from, say, Rotterdam to Durban will send 1.6 kgs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by my calculations, not to mention another half a kilogram if it needs to be trucked to Gauteng. When bottles arrive in a couple of months, you can double those figures for the extra weight. If that makes you want to check out whether local can be lekker, SAB is pointing Amstel drinkers in the direction of Hansa Marzen Gold. It’s also worth noting that some premium “foreign” beers, such as Peroni Nastro Azzurro are now brewed in South Africa. Heineken comes from next door in Namibia.

The second issue is that making the aluminium cans containing that Amstel probably created more greenhouse gases than shipping it here did. If the cans were made with coal-fired electricity, 24 cans caused 4.5 kgs of C02 to be released. I reported about the vices of aluminium and the virtues of recycling it in this post.

Throw away that can, and you throw all of the energy away with it. Recycle it and 95 percent of the energy is saved. With a packet full of aluminium cans (mostly collected on my jogs) I can really light up the face of the scrap collector who rings the bell at my gate each Monday asking for the white office paper I save for him. If you must drink Amstel from Europe, make sure somebody benefits.

Recycling &Uncategorized25 Jan 2007 09:14 am

Typek 50% Recycled Paper

For years, I have been phoning around trying to track down recycled office paper. It was simply impossible to find. So I was very excited when SAPPI last year introduced Typek 50% Recycled, in appropriately green packaging. It takes me more than a year to finish a ream of paper, however, so only when I ran out of paper this week did I get a chance to try it.

Finding Typek Green was not easy. My local Waltons and CNA did not stock it, even though a wholesaler told me that they do supply it to CNA. Makro, however, had plenty of stock, and even had it on promotion: R129 for a box of 5 reams. That’s several rand cheaper than the price of ordinary red Typek at Makro or Game. (Sale price ends January 29.) Five reams would last me until approximately 2014, but I’m happy to sell it on to friends and family.

I tested the paper in my cranky, paper-jam prone laser printer, and it worked perfectly. Compared to ordinary Mondi Rotatrim paper, it appears fractionally less white, though no one would call it grey, or even off-white. It is also a wee bit less opaque and has just enough pin-point flecks of pigment to give it credibility as recycled paper, but not enough to be noticed by a casual reader. I see no reason to ever buy non-recycled office paper again.

The actual content of the paper is 30 percent post-consumer paper and 20 percent “post-industrial waste,” which basically means clean off-cuts from paper factories. This pre-consumer paper would get recycled anyway, but it’s still impressive to see waste paper being made into a high-value product instead of toilet paper or paper towel, which is the more common fate of recycled white paper. The other 50 percent of the content comes from trees, but even this half of the paper has some green virtues. The trees come from commercial forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. I first started choosing Mondi Rotatrim paper because Mondi had FSC certified paper before SAPPI. To be certified, a forest must meet certain environmental conditions, such as natural areas of indigenous trees maintained alongside commercial plantations.

Though it’s a major improvement, using no paper at all is even better. So I will stick to my usual office procedures. Most documents are read and stored electronically and never printed. I even receive faxes on my computer through Telkom’s Virtual Fax service (R11 per month) and most of these faxes I save on my PC or discard without printing. When I do print, I usually use paper that already has printing on one side. I collect this half-used paper for free from relatives in big offices or from printing shops. New paper is for printing formal documents, letters and school projects.

As a result, it may be a few more years before I can reward SAPPI for its innovation with another purchase, so I will have to rely on others. If you know a person who makes office supply decisions, encourage them to try it. If your local stationer doesn’t carry Typek 50% Recycled, ask them to stock it. And let us know where you do find it stocked by clicking on the comments link below.

Recycling &Uncategorized23 Jan 2007 02:32 pm

Steel can, left, aluminium can, right.

Steel (left), Aluminium (right)

I am a student of litter. I use my jogging time to see what people are tossing out, and I also pick up a few cans on each run. So it quickly became obvious to me that 2007’s litter was not the same as 2006’s. Suddenly Coke cans were not rusting. They were shining up at me. They were made of aluminium.

I phoned Coca-Cola to find out what had happened, and they explained that they were temporarily importing Coke from Singapore and elsewhere because of the local shortage of carbon dioxide. (How ironic that as we swelter from the greenhouse effect, South Africa should have a shortage of carbon dioxide!)

I mention this not because I am appalled at the thought of the energy required to get a can of Coke from Singapore to Johannesburg. (Though I am.) It’s too late to do anything about that. What matters now is that these are aluminium cans instead of the usual steel cans used in South Africa. And in the hierarchy of recyclables, aluminium is king. Whether you recycle or toss away a polystyrene cup matters little in the scheme of things. Throwing away an aluminium can is a mortal sin.

Making aluminium from bauxite requires ghastly amounts of electricity, which is why you will find aluminium smelters in places like Mozambique that have none of the raw materials for aluminium and no market for aluminium but do have lots of cheap energy. For every ton of aluminium produced from coal-based electricity, 13 tons of carbon dioxide are spewed into the air.

That’s the downside.

The upside is that aluminium recycles beautifully, saving 95 percent of the energy originally used to make it. Recycling an aluminium can saves the energy equivalent of enough petrol to fill half of that can. It’s enough energy to burn a 100 watt globe for 4 hours.

For this reason, aluminium cans have a high value to recyclers. The men who wander the streets in search of scrap metal might not want your steel cans, but they will gladly take aluminium. If you can’t get the cans to a recycling depot, leave them to the side in a separate bag on your garbage collection day. They can also be taken to any Johannesburg Pikitup refuse site or Collect-A-Can depot. (Don’t expect any money for your cans. Collect-A-Can requires a very large quantity before they pay for aluminium.)

There are several ways to tell if your can is aluminium. Look at the bottom: steel cans are dull; aluminium shines. Hold a fridge magnet against the can. If it doesn’t stick, it’s aluminium. And if the can feels light and makes a rattling noise when you crumple it, it’s aluminium. Some imported beers, Red Bull and V energy drinks are all packaged in aluminium.

Since all of these are imported drinks, they are inherently wasteful. If you must drink them, picking up a littered aluminium can and recycling it is a great way to atone for your sins.

Recycling &Uncategorized16 Nov 2006 04:14 pm

Amstel returnable bottle

All Amstel bottles are green. But some are greener than others. Today, for the first time, I turned in a case of empty Amstel bottles to my neighbourhood bottle store and walked out with a new case of Amstel in washed and refilled bottles. No silica sand was mined, hauled and melted; no recycled bottles were heated to 1500 degrees Celsius for remolding. These bottles can be reused up to 40 times.

Until a few months ago, I wasn’t even aware that I could buy beer in returnable bottles. Now, South African Breweries has made it easier. In addition to Amstel, over the past couple of months they have added 330 ml returnable bottles of Castle Lager, Carling Black Label, and Hansa Pilsner to their production lines in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Returnables for these brands were previously only available for larger bottles.

Best of all, the beer is much cheaper. I paid R86 for my case of Amstel. It would have cost me R104, or 21 percent more, to buy a case of Amstel in disposable bottles at the same store. Of course I did pay a deposit of R26 for the crate and bottles the first time I bought, but I only had to pay that once, and I can get it back when I become a teetotaler.

All over the world, the companies that make different forms of beverage packaging fight over whose package is best for the environment. Determining the environmental cost of a particular bottle or can over the course of its life cycle is a very complicated business. Local factors that must be considered include the scarcity of water, how the electricity used in manufacturing is generated, and how far a bottle or can must be transported to and from the consumer. Those in the disposable business will argue against returnables, largely because of transport costs.

It is quite possible that for a farmer in the Kalahari, a reusable bottle would waste more energy for the round trip transport than it saves in manufacturing. But to get to the brewery again, my bottle only has to travel 7 kms farther than the municipality would have to haul it to the dump. For anyone living in Gauteng, Durban or Cape Town, this is the greenest beer packaging.

The mantra of waste reduction is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” in that order. Recycling is only the third best option. Reusing is better. But reducing is not only the greenest option, it’s also the simplest, healthiest and cheapest alternative. It’s tap water. Now if only Rand Water could figure out how to make beer flow out of the tap.

Recycling &Uncategorized09 Nov 2006 04:03 pm

Recycling Pastels

I just picked up my new phone books at the post office today. So what to do with the old ones? I checked with Mondi Recycling, emailing them at [email protected] (the Gauteng address), and within 48 hours I had my answer: recycle them. Mondi accepts any kind of books for recycling. In fact, it’s much easier to list the items they don’t want:

Dog food, potato, charcoal and cement bags (too strong to dissolve in water)

bottle labels (ditto)

thermal fax paper

waxed cardboard (usually frozen-food cartons)

greasy pizza boxes (tear off the lid to recycle if it’s clean)

brightly coloured office paper (pastels are fine)

used tissues (Ag sies!)

Other than that, if it’s paper or cardboard, throw it in.

If you live in one of the 400,000 homes in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban that have Mondi kerbside recycling, it’s as easy as tossing the phone books into your Mondi bag and putting it on the pavement on collection day. For details see, where you can find out the collection days for your suburb, or phone 08000 22112.