A scrap dealer in Observatory, Cape Town. Picture: SEAN O’CONNOR
A scrap dealer in Observatory, Cape Town. Picture: SEAN O’CONNOR

South Africans are improving their recycling habits, despite only 13% of households recycling their waste, according to StatisticsSA.

Recycled waste accounts for between 3%-10% of a staggering 110-million tons going into landfills each year, or 210 tons per minute.

The Paper Recycling Association of SA says that 1.4-million tons of recyclable paper and paper packaging was diverted from landfill sites in 2016, an increase of about 2% a year since 2011 to 68.4%. The European average for paper recycling is 58%.

Plastics SA claims a 35% increase in recycling since 2011, with a 42% recycling rate. The world’s most recycled packaging item is aluminium beverage cans, worth between 5c and 10c each. Hulamin has invested R300m in its Pietermaritzburg recycling plant, hoping for a part of the R430m worth of aluminium that South Africans throw away every year, according to EnviroCare.

Despite some standout performers and a concerted effort from the government and the private sector, there are still huge opportunities for growth, and jobs.

In 2011, when the recycle rate was only 4%, 60-million used tyres — more than one per person in SA — clogged landfills. A levy of R2.50/kg on the 11-million new tyres entering the market each year has helped establish a waste value for used tyres, aided by the establishment of a supplier and recycling network that has generated 3,000 jobs.

In 2017, the national waste industry generated R15bn in revenue and provided 29,833 jobs, according to GreenCape’s Market Intelligence Report of 2017. This excludes about 62,000 waste-pickers supplying new waste dealers opening shop regularly.

Jonathan, a self-described “stroller” in Cape Town, who only provided his first name, says that he has no other option but to collect cardboards from factories and deliver them to a local scrap merchant in Observatory, for about R20 a load, three times a day.

The signboard outside a scrap dealer in Cape Town. Picture: SEAN O’CONNOR
The signboard outside a scrap dealer in Cape Town. Picture: SEAN O’CONNOR

“It’s either this or I go back to prison,” he says.

The scrap collectors are equipped with a range of conveyancing devices, from trolleys to plastic crates pulled by a string, alert to the value of every piece of metal, paper, cardboard, plastic or glass.

Scrap yards are called “the people’s bank”. They are opening branches across the country as the economy constricts and unemployment rises. The vulture is SA’s new national bird.

The enamelled Victorian street signs in Observatory have long ago been prised off walls in the neighbourhood. Some went to scrap dealers, others to unscrupulous antiques dealers. In a trendy Woodstock shop, they are selling for R700 each.

Manhole covers, water meter covers, car wheels and car batteries seem to be in vogue. Car bonnets are prised open with crowbars, pipes are ripped out of walls, and street poles are hoiked away in the night.

Scrap and crime are familiar bedfellows. Heavier items — such as the thick copper cables on which electricity, communications and rail transport rely — are fair game. Daring and skill are rewarded in the scrap economy.

Cable theft is  a behavioural metaphor for SA. It costs the country billions of rand every year. Looting and plundering are, after all, a political leadership mindset.

The mines that founded SA’s modern economy entail raw materials being scraped from the earth, sold by weight and processed far away. Coal, the scrap of the millennia, is the dirty fuel of local enterprise. Abandoned mines are home to “illegal” miners, scraping the scrap left behind.

A kleptocratic system permeates society at every level and the knowledge economy is restricted by an almost purposeful neglect of education provision. The industry that is growing in leaps and bounds maximises the returns on scrap.

Tax revenues scraped from citizens’ well-meaning toil are shredded, repackaged and recycled into the bank accounts of the politically well connected. The outrageous fees charged by bankers and investment managers illustrate that they, too, are glorified scrap dealers.

Used goods, threadbare ideas, stolen items — these are the things traded in SA. The ailing physical infrastructure of the wounded nation and the social fabric that hangs in rags are being ripped apart by an army of heedless scavengers. This is well reflected in the junk currency, pegged to others with their value based on expert production.

Value is added elsewhere, SA can only provide the raw materials — its junk status is a real thing.

It’s not just the near-destitute who live in the scrap economy. Millions of South Africans live in scrap homes built with discarded pieces of zinc aluminium, pieces of packaging and sometimes weighted with abandoned car tyres — they live inside scrap. Similarly, millions depend for their existence on social grants,  another piece of scrap that was scraped from a hyperventilating national budget.

However, it’s not just about the cash. Scrap has another meaning to it, powerfully expressed in the political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal and the abandonment of ethics during the seep of state capture. The high murder rate and endemic poverty shows that life itself is scrap, expendable.

SA’s resources will probably remain a site of bitter contest in years to come, while citizens listlessly sing their appropriate scrap national anthem, cobbled together from remnants of others.

SA needs a new song, made of new materials and fit for the future — not recycled from the past.