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The issue of waste, plastic usage and recycling have become major talking points for consumers and retailers alike. The pressure to reduce our reliance on single use plastics and to increase responsible recycling has meant that consumers now, more than ever need to understand what the little arrows, symbols, numbers and codes mean on our packaging.

Whilst the WWF acknowledges that South Africa has a well developed and pragmatic food labelling regulations that present the consumer with a range of facts about what they are about to eat, the information regarding packaging has been confusing, misleading and instead of helping encourage recycling has probably lead to more waste ending in landfill than in recycling programmes.

The truth: recycling symbols on South African packaging mean very little and South Africans can be forgiven for assuming that packaging marked with a number in a triangle can be recycled. In fact, the number 1 to 7, usually printed within a triangle, refers to the type of resin contained in the packaging, however because this looks so similar to the recycle symbol, it's a common misinterpretation that the packaging can be recycled. But while most resin types are technically recyclable, many are not recyclable in South Africa. These original numbered labels were designed to assist waste collectors and waste separators, and not the customer.


Now, with the aid of WWF, a group of leading retailers are rolling out standardised recycling instructions, known as On Pack Recycling Labels (OPRLs), which will indicate whether the packaging can or cannot be recycled.

The participating retail brands in this initiative are Clicks, Food Lovers Market, Pick ‘n Pay, Spar, Shoprite and Woolworths. As it is rolled out, other companies are also expected to come on board.

Features of the new OPRLs:

· Messaging which reads simply ‘Recycled’ or ‘Not Recycled’.

· To qualify as ’Recycled’, packaging must be recycled in practice and at scale in at least one major centre. This information will be reviewed regularly.

· The new information will appear on the packaging label whenever possible or in the pack design (in the case of flexible packaging).

The packaging will still include the current resin code (three chasing arrows with coded numbers and sometimes letters). These are intended for industry insiders, such as waste pickers, recyclers and sorters, however many consumers currently mistake these to mean that packaging is recyclable which is not the case.


According to the WWF, increasing our understanding of the recyclability of a particular type of packaging is only step one in the behaviour change necessary to stop the flow of plastics in nature. We also need to reduce our dependence on single-use plastics.

Although the percentage of households in South Africa that actively recycle remains low, our recycling rates for many materials (notably beverage cans) are among the best in the world. This can be attributed to an active informal sector of waste pickers. But when it comes to plastic and other packaging waste incorrect sorting at source causes significant cost to recyclers who then have to pay the costs of disposing of these plastics.

While it is technically possible to recycle all polymer types, in reality a raft of limiting factors such as lack of infrastructure, market conditions, equipment or budgetary limitations and over-engineered materials mean that much is lost to landfill or worse into the environment.

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