Less Plastic, More Change – Where Environmental and Social Activism Meet

In our previous blog post, we discussed the grim reality of plastic pollution both locally and abroad. There is no doubting the fact that plastic is a major global problem – not only for our oceans and our animals, but for people too.

In South Africa, approximately twelve million people live in extreme poverty which means limited access to education as well as basic resources such as water, electricity and refuse removal is a norm for many. Unlike in middle and upper-class areas where recycling and conservation efforts are becoming more common, marganilised and disadvantaged South Africans are often busy trying to survive let alone considering their carbon footprints. But in order for plastic pollution to be reduced, collective effort is required. That means people, government, public and private organisations all working together to tackle this global issue.

The good news is that there are a number of ingenuous initiatives in South Africa striving to tackle the country’s pollution problem through education and innovation while focussing on social change. Here are four inspiring local conservation projects to take note of:

White Shark Projects – Swop Shop

Based in Gansbaai in the Western Cape, this award-winning conservation project is passionate about protecting sharks and the environment as a whole. In an attempt to educate the youth about recycling and ocean pollution, the organisation decided to create a “Swop Shop” in the informal settlement of Masekhane in 2017 which offers underprivileged children incentives to recycle.

While the true reward of conservation efforts is of course preserving the natural environment, the organisation saw an opportunity to teach young children about sustainability in a way that gets them excited as well as inspired to be active and involved. It also allows them to take pride in their actions and their environment.

In the Swop Shop, children are able to trade recyclables such as plastic tins, bottles and toys for points which can then be used to “purchase” items like soap, stationary, second-hand clothing, basic food supplies and more. White Shark Projects also hosts a series of educational talks at local schools to explain all about recycling – what it is and why we should do it.

This simple community project has been hugely successful in fostering a culture of sustainability and awareness among Masekhane’s youth. In fact, over 14,000 kilograms of recyclables was collected by just over 6,000 children in 2016. Now that the project is in its 9th year, we look forward to watching it grow. Perhaps this model will even make its way to other impoverished communities within South Africa.

EcoBrick Exchange

It is said that upcycling is far more effective than recycling due to the fact that the discarded objects – or recyclables – are used to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. In the case of the Ecobrick Exchange, this couldn’t be truer.

Wall of EcoBlcoks, Photograph by Katinka Bester
Photograph by Katinka Bester

Ecobrick is an environmental awareness project that upcycles plastic waste into bricks to facilitate the construction of preschools in underprivileged communities, such as the Walmer township of Port Elizabeth. By doing so, Ecobrick creates a product that benefits our environment as well as our youth.

In essence, Ecobricks are 2L Coca Cola bottles which have been stuffed with compacted plastic waste – plastic which otherwise would have found its way into the ocean. These bricks provide great insulation and are water, fire and even bullet-proof. Ecobrick describes their product as a “final resting place for small plastic toys” and we have to agree, it’s a better destination than the ocean.

Rethaka – Repurpose Schoolbags

For many children living in rural parts of the country with little or no access to electricity, doing homework is something that has to happen before the sun goes down which isn’t always easy considering some children have to travel very far either by foot or unreliable public transport in order to get home. Thato Kgatlhanye, a young entrepreneur hailing from Rustenburg in the North West province, wanted to create a solution that could solve this problem for children in her local community. So, she invented Repurpose Schoolbags – the first green initiative from Rethaka.

What’s exciting about this project is that it upcycles plastic waste collected in the area to create 100% recycled plastic schoolbags for disadvantaged students. What’s more, these backpacks double as a light due to the solar panel contained in the flap of each bag. The solar panel charges as children walk to and from school; and due to their reflective material strips, the bags make children more visible to traffic in the early hours of the morning.

The bags are created by eight full-time staff – six of whom are women – who produce roughly 20 bags a day. At first, Kgatlhanye and her business-partner-cum-childhood-friend Rea Ngwane struggled to find the infrastructure needed to recycle plastic. As a result, the pair decided to create their own. They did this by collecting plastic from landfill sites and participating schools that run campaigns to incentivise students to bring in plastic waste. The plastic is then transported to the businesswomen’s workshop where they process it into textiles using industrial sewing machines. Kgatlhanye says that the process gets children interested in recycling – a concept which is often foreign in rural areas. She also explains that seeing the waste transformed into a tangible, useful product has motivated more children to pick up litter in the community.



From a small community project in Hout Bay to a multinational enterprise, TrashBack is a social and environmental recycling program that creates jobs for low-income South Africans. Much like the White Shark Projects’ Swop Shop, TrashBack encourages the public to recycle by offering rewards in the form of cash vouchers for recyclable waste. These vouchers can be used to purchase food and clothing from local vendors and retailers thereby contributing towards greater economic empowerment.

By incentivising recycling efforts, TrashBack hopes to protect the environment by reducing pollution as well as create more job opportunities to improve the lives of disadvantaged South Africans. Today TrashBack has collection hubs situated across the continent in Cape Town, Lusaka and Johannesburg. The project has succeeded in creating over 500 opportunities for the homeless and individuals within the informal and low-skills sectors.

It’s not just about job creation however. As TrashBack states on its website, “we are about giving people a sense of worth, a spirit of hope, a future to look forward to and a chance to take back ownership of their and our communities, through life skills and technical skill development.”

What can you do?

Apart from assisting local conservation projects by either volunteering or donating, there are a number of ways that each and every person can help reduce daily plastic consumption and waste. By committing to more sustainable lifestyles and greener decision-making, we can lead by example and encourage our children, families and friends to do the same.

–          Bring your own reusable material shopping bag when you go shopping.

–          Purchase plastic-free products wherever possible (this includes kids’ toys!)

–          Buy second-hand clothing or, if you can afford to, buy clothing made from organic materials

–          Carry a reusable water bottle, preferably one made of glass.

–          Pack your lunch – and your kids’ lunch – in reusable containers.

–          Ditch plastic/disposable cutlery.

–          Store leftovers in glass jars.

–          Avoid frozen convenience foods due which are excessively packaged with plastic.

–          Use natural cloths for cleaning instead of plastic scrubbing brushes.

–          Say no to straws and balloons.

–          Recycle.

–          Steer clear of canned food that’s lined with BPA (such as coconut milk, soup, meat, vegetables, fish, juice, beans, fruit etc)

–          Never use plastic coffee capsules instead use a French press or ceramic drip to prepare your coffee.

–          Educate yourself and your children about the dangers of plastic and the importance of conservation.