Value of recycled cardboard decreased since China ban

By Isabelle Coetzee

The recycled cardboard market has dropped by roughly 40% since April, when China started a campaign called Blue Sky 2018 to curb waste smuggling from countries like South Africa.

This is according to Kate Stubbs, director of business development and marketing at Interwaste, who adds that food packaging from Tetra Pak has seen a similar decline.

Certain South African waste pickers, or independent collectors, now receive less money for the items they collect.

“Those who collect in industrial areas rely on cardboard for their income, and the drop in market value for cardboard has reduced their income,” says Stubbs.

However, waste pickers within domestic and residential areas collect a variety of products, including glass, plastic, and paper.

“The price of these products has not been affected too drastically by the ban, so there is still good opportunity for them,” says Stubbs.  

A history of recycling through China

During the 1980’s, most natural resource monopolies in China were state-owned, and small businesses struggled to get an affordable share of raw materials.

Entrepreneurs responded to this by importing recyclables from other countries, like South Africa, and selling it to small Chinese businesses.

Chinese nationals also opened plastic processing facilities in South Africa, which allowed them to process the waste locally and export it to China as a finished product.

In turn, this enabled job creation in processing facilities.

The waste import industry became lucrative in China – so lucrative that local gangs started smuggling recycling into the country to gain the highest profits.

Blue Sky 2018 aims to stop this by banning the importation of 24 types of foreign waste, such as paper and textiles, and instead rely on local recycling sources.

“This has led to South African recyclables, such as cardboard, being stockpiled while they wait for alternative markets to open. This has driven down their value,” says Stubbs.

The value of recycling: Employment

“While recycling offers many environmental benefits, its ability to create jobs cannot be emphasised enough,” says Stubbs.

SiyaBuddy Recycling, which is based in the Ehlanzeni District in Mpumalanga, facilitates the employment of 18 locals and distributes R95,000 to community members every month.

The company aims to address social issues through environmental conservation. 

Nomuntu Ndhlovu, director of business development at SiyaBuddy, explains that the amount of money made by independent collectors differs based on their locations.

She says the closer they are to recyclers, the more money they will make. Selling directly to recyclers, as opposed to working indirectly through buyback centres, leads to higher profits.

Besides location, independent collectors’ profits also depend on how much they manage to collect and the current prices of the different recyclable materials.

“In Nkomazi Municipality, Mpumalanga, where SiyaBuddy Recycling currently operates, the independent collectors make an average of R1,500 per month,” says Ndhlovu.

Stubbs points out that the waste picker sector is growing, and it plays a key role in South Africa’s recycling strategy.

“As recycling becomes a national priority, it presents more opportunities for waste pickers to work as one-man-bands to support their families, or organise themselves into small businesses,” says Stubbs.

She believes, given the correct resources, waste pickers can become more empowered and hopefully employ other members of the community – thus further combatting unemployment.

What about the environment?

According to the State of the Environment Report (SOER), this is how much waste South Africans generated in 2006 based on income: 

  • Low income = 0.41kg/per person/day or (0.41kgx365 days) = 149.65kg/person/year
  • Middle income = 0.74kg/per person/day or (0.74kgx 365days) = 270.1kg/person/year
  • High income = 1.29kg/person/day or (1.29kgx365days) = 470.85kg/person/year

Ndhlovu points out that household waste is typically composed of 55% organic waste, 10% paper, 13% plastic, 4% glass, 3% metal, and 15% “other” waste types.

“Considering this, and the amount of waste produced per person per year, a household can easily determine how much income they can make from their waste material,” says Ndhlovu.

“The challenge lies in where to send waste material, because the majority of municipalities are rural, and they do not have access to buyback centres,” she adds.

Ndhlovu explains that if South Africans recycled rather than send their waste to landfill sites, 65% of their total waste could be recycled, rather than squandered. 

However, the concern is that less than 20% of waste is recycled annually.

Solving the problem

“Businesses need to look at how they can turn their waste into something usable – reducing reliance on landfill – and they also need to invest in educating their staff,” says Stubbs.

Besides this, she believes consumers have a massive role to play in the waste economy.

“If you buy something that comes in recyclable material, then you should take accountability to ensure that it goes back into the recycling process,” says Stubbs.

“Without commitment from consumers, no process put into place by corporate South Africa, government, or waste-management companies, will be effective.”

Independent collectors gather at the solid waste disposal facility in Devon Valley, where they sort through refuse, and collect material to be sold to buyers who come to the site to purchase recyclables. 

PHOTOS: Isabelle Coetzee

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