The Reality: What we see

It is difficult not become emotionally involved when one sees the plethora of information, and horrendous pictures of the damage litter, particularly plastic, is doing to our planet. There is nowhere on earth that plastic hasn’t had a devastating effect on wildlife and the environment. Our oceans from the surface to the very deep are a plastic dumping ground.

The deadly KwaZulu-Natal floods over the Easter weekend this year were declared a provincial disaster. The consequences were devastating, particularly to people who lost loved ones, to those who lost homes and many who were left destitute. And devastation to the environment.

The harbour at the Royal Natal Yacht club:

Umbogintwini beach near Amanzimtoti:

Thank you to Douw Steyn, Director Sustainability at Plastics|SA for permission to reproduce these photos.

Did you know?
350 kgs plastic enters seas every second
Thank you Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) for permission to use the photo.

WATCH: What really happens to the plastic you throw away?

Where does all this litter come from?

Litter comes from where people live, work, study, play, shop. It goes into the environment countrywide, into landfills, rivers, wetlands, estuaries and the sea.

It is incumbent on each one of us to become aware of our use of plastic and until such time as all South Africans have access to and practice waste management, first prize would be to, wherever possible, stop using it altogether. It is worth finding out from your ‘drop off’ centre, or from the company that collects recyclables left on your pavement which types of plastic they accept.

Different communities have different access to recycling with more variety in the industry concentrated in our cities. People who live in Johannesburg, including visitors to the city, will have seen many informal recyclers moving around the streets with their huge recycle bags on pallets with wheels.

Each type of plastic has an identification coding system illustrated by a set of symbols placed on plastics to identify the polymer type. (A polymer is a larger molecule created by joining smaller molecules together. Smaller molecules are called monomers and the process of joining monomers together to produce a polymer is called polymerisation).

The coding system was developed by the American Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) now called the Plastics Industry Trade Association but administered by ASTM International since 2008 (formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials). The coding system is widely used internationally. The main raw material used for the construction of the plastics product is identified for information, as well as to allow efficient separation of different polymer types for recycling. It does not indicate that the product can be recycled neither if it is being recycled.

It is worth noting that plastic generally is not biodegradable. 

The list below is by no means comprehensive, it is simply examples.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

Uses: Clear fruit/food containers, water bottles, carbonated soft drinks, rigid medicine and make-up containers.

Recyclable: Yes.
(Only beverage bottles are recycled in South Africa).

Mainly food containers, beverage bottles and non-food packaging, clothing, carpet fibers, shoes.

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

Uses: Plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, household cleaning containers, plastic milk bottles, garbage bins carrier bags, crates, toys, shopping baskets.

Recyclable: Yes.

Non-food containers, watering cans, storage containers, shopping trolleys, shopping baskets, irrigation pipes, carrier bags, crates, benches, decking.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Uses: Rigid non-packaging PVC (PVC-U) is used extensively in the building industry e.g. plumbing pipes, gutters, tanks, cladding, skirtings.
Packaging PVC (PVC-U) clear bottles, clingfilm, foam bath bottles, food packaging.

Flexible non-packaging PVC (PVC-P) cable insulation, flooring, hoses, soft toys Packaging PVC (PVC-P) clingfilm, soft see through bags.

Recyclable: Yes.
Mainly clean factory waste. No post-consumer PVC packaging is recycled in SA.

Rigid PVC (PVC-U), for example piping, will be granulated and recycled back into the same type of rigid pipe. Flexible PVC (PVC-P), for example cable covers will be recycled back into interlocking floors. If PVC packaging contained a liquid, food or chemicals it becomes contaminated and too expensive to recycle.

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Uses: Sandwich bags, squeezable condiment bottles, frozen food bags, plastic grocery bags fine produce bags for carrying fruit and vegetables. Stretch wrap which is made from Linear low-density Polyethylene (LLDPE). It is a plastic film used for wrapping suitcases, and items such as binding bricks to a pallet.

Recyclable: Yes.

Garbage bags, carrier bags, sawdust bags, wood bags, furniture shrouds, damp course, undertile plastics, irrigation pipes, furniture, pull out liner of metal garbage bins, decking.

Polypropylene (PP)

Uses: Containers, buckets, suitcases, storage boxes, straws. Tupperware, yoghurt containers, disposable cups/plates, margarine tubs.

Recyclable: Yes.

Buckets, bowls, chairs, garden furniture, chair shells, children’s furniture, storage containers.

Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)

Uses: Packaging materials (to stabalise computers, fridges, microwaves etc.), food trays, coffee cups, CD covers, yoghurt containers, clear trays for fresh produce and sushi.

Recyclable: Yes.
Specialised recycling.

Light weight concrete, décor products such as picture frames, cornices, skirting, louvres, rulers, insulation.

Only packaging materials that are not included from 1 to 6, e.g. polycarbonate, polylactic, polyurethane. (Acrylic, nylon and styrene fibreglass are not packaging materials).

Uses: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) portion packs for jam and margarine, multi-layer combinations of two or more materials, for example PE+PP or PE+PA or PE+PET – examples are detergent packaging, sauce sachets, muesli bags.

Recyclable: Single materials are recycled if labelled correctly. Multi-layer combinations are only recycled if clean.

Polywood planks for furniture.

It is encouraging to read that some countries and various cities have already banned single use plastic, whilst others are in the planning phase. However, there is a very long way to go and time is of critical importance.

Each one of us must ask ourselves ‘what can I do to save our planet’?


  • Educate ourselves, and where possible others, to the uses and consequences of using any type of plastic. Arrange for the people who work on your property but live elsewhere to bring their cleaned plastic recycling to your home to put into your recycling bag.
  • Lobby our retailers and local shopkeepers to stop using, particularly single use plastics.



  • Reduce your dependence on plastic products.
  • Set up a recycling system in your home.
  • When out for a walk pick up litter.  If it is recyclable plastic take it home and put it in your recycling bag.
  • Ask your butcher to wrap your meat in paper. Or take your own containers.
  • Wherever possible stop using plastic.  It is not necessary to put that bunch of bananas, two onions, three tomatoes, a loaf of bread into one of those fine Polyethylene plastic produce bags. Where possible buy loose fruit and vegetables and put them into a brown paper bag or box.


  • Don’t buy water in plastic bottles, use re-usable glass.
  • Don’t buy plastic carbonated cold drink bottles, buy cans.
  • Don’t buy coffee in Styrofoam or take-away cups, take your own travel mug.
  • Do not use plastic straws.
  • Never use balloons.
  • Choose not to use cosmetics which contain microbeads.
  • Stop using single use plastics

Think twice about what you buy – do you need it? Can you live without it?
Buy local. Fight litter and littering wherever possible!

Thank you to the following people who assisted with this article

Annebé Pretorius from the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO) for invaluable and generous help.

Dr Tony Ribbink from the Sustainable Seas Trust for initial consultation and constructive suggestions.

Desiré Preston from JCL Plastic Enterprises (Pty) Ltd for the information on Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).

Types of Plastic and their Recycle Codes in the Quality Logo Products website. Alyssa Mertes