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  • SA is adopting strict new laws that demand that manufacturers must recover and recycle products sold to consumers.
  • They will have to start new programmes, set up collection points, do regular audits and achieve stringent new targets.
  • This will cost money – which will probably mean that prices of everything from lightbulbs to electronic equipment will grow more expensive.
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South Africa is getting close to drowning in its own waste. Only 10% of 108 million tonnes of trash generated every year enter recycling plants, and most of the country’s 826 landfill sites are nearing critical capacity.

To drastically alter South Africa’s wasteful habits and encourage a “circular economy” - where materials are re-used over and over again - government last week gazetted radical new legislation that will have a big impact on businesses and consumers. 

Manufacturers, importers and brand owners must take responsibility to ensure that much of their products are returned (and recycled) after being sold and used, according to the new amendments to the National Environmental Management’s Waste Act.

This applies to a long list of products, with electronic equipment (with a voltage rating not exceeding 1,000 volts for alternating current and 1,500 volts for direct current) highlighted, alongside packaging, plastic, paper and lighting.

All existing producers and importers of these products are required to register with the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment before April 2021.

Producers must establish collection and recycling schemes within the next six months. They can work with waste management companies, as well as informal waste collectors. 

But they must comply with strict new targets.

So, for example, producers of lightbulbs (incandescent filament lights) must introduce a scheme that – after the first year it took effect – has collected 50% of all their used bulbs from consumers. After five years, 70% of all used bulbs must be collected.

There are also steep collection targets for everything from office paper to PET plastic beverage bottles. More than 70% of these bottles must be collected within a year of the scheme's launch.

They must also comply with other rules for cleaner production, reduced rates of waste as well as reusing existing materials – and submit audits to government

If companies don’t want to take on individual responsibility, they must register with a licensed non-profit organisation which oversees compliance with the Waste Act. Because all of the complex rules, it’s expected that most South African producers will opt to create new industry-specific groups, or align themselves with existing organisations, called Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs).

One such South African body, The Glass Recycling Company (TGRC), says that government’s decision to shift both physical and financial responsibility onto producers would have a positive impact on the country’s waste crisis. “While this may be seen as a massive task for corporate South Africa, it is in fact one of the main reasons for the existence of producer responsibility organisations and recycling packaging organisations to assist the industry to self-regulate and coordinate their reuse and recycling activities, and educate consumers, amongst other activities.”

But others are more concerned.

Patricia Schröder of Lightcycle SA, a registered PRO which represents producers of bulbs and lighting equipment in South Africa, including Osram and Eurolux, believes the timing is too tight.

“There needs to be a phased-in process. Government hasn’t allowed for an implementation phase,” said Schröder explaining that, in order to comply with the Waste Act, producers and PROs would need time and money to scale-up operational capacity.

Additionally, Schröder raised red flags around government’s decision to cap PRO administration fees at 6% of revenue collected. “To cap it like that is a concern,” said Schröder. “The figure should not be stipulated [by government]; it needs to be sustainable and will change from PRO to PRO.”

Any person, producer or PRO found in violation of the laws could face imprisonment for up to 15 years or an ‘appropriate fine’.

How the new legislation will impact consumers

For now, the new legislation doesn’t put any obligation on South Africans to recycle or return products – the burden is on producers to ensure they have schemes in place to encourage the return of used products.

They are expected to set up more recycle points at shops, for everything from solar lights, newspapers, magazines, bottles and plastic and paper packaging – to encourage consumers to return their goods.

The big impact will be felt at the till.

Launching new schemes, and complying with the stringent new regulations to make products greener, will cost money.  Producers are expected to eventually pass these costs on to consumers.

“So, yes, the price of a lightbulb may go up by a rand or two,” says Schröder.

The price for electric and electronic equipment may go up by much more. The costs associated with recycling complex electronic equipment, which contains a host of hazardous materials, may result in a noticeable spike.

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