During the 1960s and ’70s it was thought that emissions from factory chimneys and sewage pipes constituted the biggest environmental problem. But since then, due to new, worldwide “Eco-laws”, these discharges have decreased considerably. Instead, the focus has switched to the environmental problems associated with the goods that are produced and consumed in modern society. Many of the most environmentally damaging substances are currently being supplied through glass bottles, newspapers, plastic bags, coke cans, cardboard boxes and sweet wrappers just to mention a few.
To tell you what recycling is and what the word actually embodies may seem strange to you. I am sure all of you think you know exactly what it entails. But in theory recycling involves the separation and collection of materials for processing and re-manufacturing old products into new products, and the use of these new products, completing the cycle.
Glass is one of the most common man-made materials. It is made from sand, limestone and sodium carbonate and silica. The ingredients are heated to a high temperature in a furnace until they melt together. The molten glass from the furnace cools to form sheets, or may be moulded to make objects. Actually glass is completely recyclable and making products from recycled glass rather than starting from scratch saves energy resources. Recycled glass is made into new beverage bottles, food jars, insulation and other construction materials. Usually, clear glass containers are recycled into new clear glass products, while coloured glass containers are recycled into new coloured glass products.
In fact, the recycling of glass as well other products, such as aluminum and steel cans, cardboard, car tyres, newspapers and certain plastics is a growing industry in most of the world today. In South Africa however, we don’t have a very high level of recycling. There aren’t enough people who take an active interest in the environment and try to do their bit in preserving nature, by for example, taking used bottles, aluminum cans or even leaves and other garden refuse to recycling sites. This is probably due to a lot of reasons. The first and foremost being that, in South Africa, we don’t have many recycling centres and, lets face it, how many of us really sort our rubbish before throwing it in the rubbish bin?
Since it is now these products, and no longer industrial emissions, that accounts for most of the environmentally harmful substances being discharged in nature the conditions for environmental efforts have fundamentally changed. As the “release sites” or the polluters, have become so numerous, a totally new system for controlling and handling environmentally harmful wastes is needed.
One way could be to transfer the responsibility for this to the producer of goods, according to the established principle “the polluter pays.”
However, I found this principle not be all that efficient in practise. To find out what is actually being done at the industrial level, I spoke with William Footman, one of the regional managers of Nampak, which is one of South Africa’s 2 glass manufacturers. He told me that the reason we don’t have a very developed glass recycling programme in this country, is due to the fact that we only have two factories where glass can be recycled back into beverage bottles. And as it is far too expensive for the companies to transport old bottles back to their factories for recycling, they would rather produce new, rather than re-use the old glass.
But, producers who put a product on the market should, quite simply, be responsible for taking back as much as is sold. What is important for environmental policy is the creation of a system in which each producer assumes his responsibility. But should all the responsibility lie on the producers? Every consumer who buys these products should make an asserted effort to help keep our planet clean.
I searched the Internet to find out exactly how poorly we as South Africans compare to the rest of the world in recycling. The country that has been in the forefront of recycling, particularly for household waste, is Sweden. Swedes have to carefully recycle and separate their own rubbish for the refuse collectors on a daily basis. Even in the middle of their very cold winters, in raging snowstorms, the Swedish people go to the recycling stations with their household trash to perform the daily ritual of separating cardboard from plastics and glass from biological waste.
Actually nearly all 1st world countries and many developing countries have developing or already highly developed recycling programmes, and South Africa desperately needs to jump on the ‘recycling wagon’. A step in the right direction could be to build recycling plants all over the country. Every town should set up a sufficient number of collection stations and every household should share the responsibility and sort their rubbish to ensure that batteries and electrical appliances are not thrown in landfills, that glass, aluminium cans and plastic bags don’t clutter the country-side. Working together with the producers, consumers should send items back to factories, to be recycled and thereby reused.
The process of recycling, for example paper, entails the conversion of waste paper to various types of finer grades of paper. First, careful sorting is required so that items such as plastic wrapping, paper clips and staples can be removed. Waste paper is divided into categories such as newsprint; typing and computer paper; and magazines, which have shiny paper and coloured inks and need special treatment. Next, the ink must be removed. This is done by soaking the paper and breaking it up into small pieces in giant washers, then treating it with chemicals that loosen the ink so that it can be rinsed away. Sometimes more than one such chemical must be used because many types of ink must be removed. Finally, the wet, shredded waste paper is blended with other materials according to the type of end product that is desired. Old pieces of cloth, which are used to produce the finest, most expensive grades of paper, may be mixed in. Wood pulp and other forms of cellulose such as straw may also be added in varying proportions. If white paper or paper for greeting cards or stationery is to be produced, bleach may also be added to lighten it; if newsprint is to be produced, a mixture of red and blue dyes is added to reduce the greyness of the final product. Chemical preservatives are also added at this point.
At this time, the fully treated material is a sort of liquid sludge that is ready to be made into paper. In most papermaking operations, the sludge passes through a machine called a beater, which is essentially a very heavy roller that presses the fibres in the sludge together and squeezes out the water. The paper is formed and held together by the natural interlocking of the long cellulose or cloth fibres as they are pressed and dried. No glue is used in the process and in fact, the natural glue in wood is removed chemically before the paper is made.
A refining machine brushes the roll of sludge to smooth out irregularities. The papermaking machine presses the sludge into thin slices, which are then further dried by pressing or by being placed in furnaces. Finally, the paper is polished or chemically treated to give it the proper finish and lastly packaged and sent to customers.
The papermaking process itself is pretty much the same whether one uses virgin materials, recycled materials, or a mixture of the two. The difference is in the preparation of the sludge. Recycled material requires careful sorting. This in turn means that the paper mills must have a place to store waste paper and the staff to sort it, as well as a means of disposing of waste paper that cannot be used. Removing ink from waste paper also requires special chemicals, equipment, and equipment operators. As a result, some paper mills are not set up to use any recycled materials. That’s why the forests are getting smaller and smaller.
Also, not all paper products can be made with recycled paper. Brown grocery bags, for example, can be recycled into other types of paper, but they must be made, at least partially, out of virgin materials because only virgin materials have the long unbroken fibres that give the bags their necessary strength. Unlike glass bottles and aluminum cans, which can be recycled an infinite number of times, paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. Each time it is recycled, its quality degrades slightly because the fibres become more and more broken. At some point recycled paper has to be mixed in with virgin material, and eventually after repeated uses, it ends up in a landfill or and incinerator.
Obviously as recycling plants and collection sites have to be set up all over the country and for all the various types of materials we use in every day life, it is going to be a very expensive process to start, but it is vital that the wheels are set in motion before it is too late! In turn this will lead to many new jobs opening up for unskilled as well as skilled people in South Africa helping to keep our country cleaner as well as decreasing unemployment and thereby promoting the economy.
I know that to fully understand why recycling is important and to have a general feeling of responsibility and to want to keep the environment clean stems from having an education and understanding the concept of pollution. I also understand that it is not easy for the many people in our country without a proper education, to feel the need to recycle, as they may not understand they urgency of it. But if all of us in this room today already knew and understood what recycling is and how much damage is done to the ecosystem by not recycling, why do we not feel the need to take action and start taking care of our beautiful country!