New Recycling Laws – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly


Here are some extracts from an article in the Business Insider SA, written by Luke Daniel on the 10th November 2020.

South Africa is getting close to drowning in its own waste. Only 10% of 108 million tonnes of trash generated every year enter recycling plants, and most of the country’s 826 landfill sites are nearing critical capacity.

To drastically alter South Africa’s wasteful habits and encourage a “circular economy” – where materials are re-used over and over again – government last week gazetted radical new legislation that will have a big impact on businesses and consumers.

Manufacturers, importers and brand owners must take responsibility to ensure that much of their products are returned (and recycled) after being sold and used, according to the new amendments to the National Environmental Management’s Waste Act.

This applies to a long list of products, with electronic equipment (with a voltage rating not exceeding 1,000 volts for alternating current and 1,500 volts for direct current) highlighted, alongside packaging, plastic, paper and lighting.

All existing producers and importers of these products are required to register with the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment before April 2021.

Producers must establish collection and recycling schemes within the next six months. They can work with waste management companies, as well as informal waste collectors. But they must comply with strict new targets.

So, for example, producers of lightbulbs (incandescent filament lights) must introduce a scheme that – after the first year it took effect – has collected 50% of all their used bulbs from consumers. After five years, 70% of all used bulbs must be collected.

There are also steep collection targets for everything from office paper to PET plastic beverage bottles. More than 70% of these bottles must be collected within a year of the scheme’s launch.

They must also comply with other rules for cleaner production, reduced rates of waste as well as reusing existing materials – and submit audits to government

Anyone found in violation of the laws could face imprisonment for up to 15 years or an ‘appropriate fine’.


The new legislation doesn’t put any obligation on South Africans, the consumers, to recycle or return products – the burden is on producers to ensure they have schemes in place to encourage the return of used products.

They are expected to set up more recycle points at shops, for everything from solar lights, newspapers, magazines, bottles and plastic and paper packaging – to encourage consumers to return their goods.


The big impact will be felt at the till.

Launching new schemes, and complying with the stringent new regulations to make products greener, will cost money.  Producers are expected to eventually pass these costs on to consumers.

“So, yes, the price of a lightbulb may go up by a rand or two,” and the price for electric and electronic equipment may go up by much more. The costs associated with recycling complex electronic equipment, which contains a host of hazardous materials, may result in a noticeable spike.


Unfortunately, whilst these new recycling laws are great, an opportunity has been missed to deliver the full and complete package, i.e. to cover both ends of the problem and to put in place a complete solution which will be far more effective and faster.

It is a question of both supply and demand. These rules are focussing entirely upon the behaviour of the supply side of the equation. Yes, it is noted that the demanders, the consumers, will be affected by this new legislation in their pocket, they will have to pay more – but is that good enough in a world and country that is numb to the ever-present norm of prices rising with inflation.

No, it is not enough. The second paragraph of the article talks about the need to drastically reduce South Africa’s wasteful habits, these are the habits of the consumers, the demand side of the equation, yet the legislation only focusses on the suppliers. There are a few further considerations that are missing and should have been included in these new laws.

The Stick

There needed to be a similar, although not preferred, component of applying the big stick to consumers. There are cities in the world already doing this to great effect.

Germans recycle 66 percent of their municipal waste. The secret to their success lies in a culture of environmental stewardship that has been slowly instilled through government mandates—enforced by fines—on both citizens and the manufacturers who produce the rubbish. Colour-coded bins are placed everywhere, from parks and schools to public transit stops and residential collection sites: Yellow for plastic, Blue for paper, Brown for organic matter, and Green for coloured glass.

The emphasis on purposeful separation is underscored by a system of fines imposed on households who miss-sort their rubbish, the government often penalising those who contaminate an entire batch of recycling. Green dots placed on the outside of product packaging indicate that it must be recycled, or face paying high fees.

In America pushed by aggressive state-wide policies, the two major population hubs in California, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are reaching nearly unprecedented waste recovery rates. Embracing bold change, all Californians must now bring reusable bags to collect their groceries or pay a fee per bag if they forget. The new policy is working towards eliminating the single-use plastic bag litter on waterways, beaches, and roads. By 2017, one year after the ban on distributing single-use plastic bags, the bag litter was down 72 percent, according to Californians Against Waste, a non-profit research and advocacy organization dedicated to waste reduction and recycling programs.


Secondly, as is the case with many of the ways of life that are in existence in this world that we have created and that we see around us, which we have got wrong, there needs to be education. And here I am not referring to education on recycling, how to go about it and what categories different waste material fall into. I’m referring to education on demand and over usage and waste – basic concepts around health; what I need as opposed to what I want; coping mechanisms and alternatives etc.

For example, by 2000, Los Angeles achieved an unprecedented 65.2 percent recovery rate, far exceeding its initial goals. The city’s new target—90 percent by 2025—is bolstered by a citizen participatory 20-year plan. “Rethink LA” initiatives help educate citizens on the importance of recycling and composting. The numerous sub-programs laid out to substantiate LA’s commitment to recycling include one program for restaurants to compost food waste and another that reduces company’s city tax obligations based on their recycling efforts (which leads to the next, and last, point below, incentives).

Los Angeles’s recycling achievements and conscientious citizen participation is due in large part to community-wide education and campaigns. From bilingual recycling education to grassroots outreach in low income communities, LA has managed to stay on track toward a zero waste initiative.


As a last point, and alluded to above – where are the incentives? Why not offer incentives? We talk about applying the “carrot or the stick” to change behaviour, why do we most often apply rules that restrict and punish?

In conclusion then, this new legislation is great to see, but it suffers from being half incomplete. It doesn’t go the whole way and include what is in fact that greater problem, the behaviour of consumers, the demand side of the equation. Remove the demand and to a large degree the problems on the supply side either go away, or are far easier to manage.

Jon O’Hanlon