Globally, there is a growing consciousness regarding the preservation of our planet. More and more people are researching and taking up waste reduction practices, like the reduction of single-use plastic item usage, as well as recycling. Locally, one of the ‘buzz phrases’ we are hearing more frequently is ‘separation at source’, referring to the separation of waste as close to the original source as possible.
I asked Herman Steenkamp, a senior sales expert at WastePlan with more than 9 years of experience nationally, to help me understand more about separation at source - both in the industry and at home. WastePlan is an onsite waste management and recycling company with more than 400 sites nationally so I felt confident that they could help me understand this topic better.
Q: In a bit more detail, what does WastePlan do?
A: WastePlan is an onsite waste management and recycling company. Our focus is to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill by sorting waste on behalf of our clients. For commercial customers, we have teams on our customers’ sites. Our main activity is to sort the waste for recyclable materials and to then further sort these materials into their types. For example; plastics are sorted in specific types, and these different types are sold on for recycling.
For non-recyclable items, we try to find alternative solutions (like repurposing) and aim to send as little of our customers’ waste to landfill as possible.
Q: There is a global trend in waste generation and disposal awareness. Locally, we have seen steps within Johannesburg whereby the City of Johannesburg requires various residential communities to sort their waste before collection. What is WastePlan's position on the 'sorting at source' initiatives being implemented?
A: Sorting at source is an important aspect of waste management, superseded only by the goal of reducing the amount of waste being produced. Sorting closest to the source has numerous benefits but for us as a waste management provider, a key benefit is that sorting at source means that there is a better chance of recycling or reusing the waste.
A simple example is the opportunity to recycle a piece of paper. If the material was separated at source, the paper can potentially be sent for recycling. But if the piece of paper was disposed of with the general waste and happened to come into contact with last night’s discarded tomato sauce, that piece of paper is no longer suitable for recycling.
With regard to Johannesburg’s initiatives and requirements, we are always positive about the expansion of municipal residential recycling services.
Q: Do you believe it is more hygienic for waste to be separated at source rather than at the waste dump?
A: Yes, it’s definitely more hygienic to separate your waste at source but the two options provided aren’t the only areas to consider. Another separation area option is a demarcated waste area onsite. These areas ensure that waste is not sorted on a factory’s production floor (for example) but rather in a controlled space.
As a general rule, the closer to source waste is sorted, the cleaner the waste is. Think about it, if you are in the office and you accidentally drop your pen into your wastebasket you’ll take it out and just sanitise it. Nothing in a regularly emptied wastebasket is very dirty and there won’t be any physical danger to you. On the other hand, if you were to accidentally drop your pen into a bag of waste that’s been standing in a public area for 2 weeks, you’d be better off just replacing the pen! Honestly, you’re not going to stick your hand into a bag of putrid waste and expose yourself to the risk of needle stick injury or cutting yourself on broken glass.
Q: What are some of the risks Wastepickers face when sorting waste on a daily basis?
A: Firstly, it’s important to note that there are two types of Wastepickers.
Within the formal sector, Wastepickers (or Sorters) are people who receive waste from a specific source, like a hotel room, who then put the waste on a table and sorts the recyclables from the non-recyclables in a controlled, safe environment. Waste is managed accordingly and the Wastepickers use specific personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing to safely do their jobs with minimal exposure to risks like illness, needlestick injury etc.
PPE generally includes protective shoes like steel cap boots, overalls, dust masks and gloves but may also include specialist items like overcoats, specialist gloves to handle sharp objects or respirators.
Within the informal sector, Wastepickers are people who pick waste out of mixed waste at a landfill (often women looking for 2 or 3 specific types of plastic) or people that pick waste out of dustbins in the street. These people have no protective gear and are at serious risk for the inhalation of harmful gas emissions, germs and physical risks like broken glass or contaminated needles. There are also no facilities at these sites to wash your hands or to have your lunch in a hygienic environment.
Q: Is there a hygiene protocol at sorting facilities that employees follow?
A: The standard protocol focuses on cleaning. There is a daily cleaning regime for areas like sorting tables and waste sorting areas and an antibacterial detergent is used.
Q: Do you have tips for residents that would like to sort their waste for recycling at home?
A: WastePlan commends anyone for taking the initiative and time to sort waste at home.
Firstly, look at ways that you can reduce your waste and secondly, understand where your waste goes.
- If you have a municipal waste recycler, ask what the requirements are and stick to those requirements - there is a reason for it so please support their process.
- If there is no formal service and you have waste pickers go speak to them and ask what they collect. That will inform you as to how best to sort your waste. Put these items in a separate bag at the top, or on top of, your wheelie bin.
- If you take your recyclables to a central drop off centre (like at a school), consider what receptacles there are and sort your waste accordingly before you get there. For example, if they specify newspapers only take newspapers and don’t add magazines as they might not be able to recycle them.
I would like to thank Herman for taking the time to share his knowledge with us and encourage you to look at recycling as part of your hygiene routine.
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