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Important recycling terms


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Compostable Products


This means a product can be recycled into a new or similar product either via a standard or specialised recycling process. 

There are a large number of paper products that are recyclable using standard recycling processes. There are also some products that are conditionally compatible with the standard recycling process, meaning that those materials can affect the efficiency of the process and the output quality of the recycled material (also know as recyclate).

Important notes about recyclability

  • Specialised processes are adapted, for instance, to handle larger amounts of non-fibre materials as well as fibre materials that need dedicated pulping conditions or deinking steps. A mill might still process these materials by blending them with higher quality grades. 
  • There are some paper products that are not compatible with traditional or specialised processes, and require more research and development to enable efficient treatment and processing.
  • Even if a material is recyclable in theory, it does not mean that it can be collected efficiently or recycled locally, or recycled in practice. Things like little sugar sachets and straw paper coverings are fully recyclable but are difficult or uneconomical to collect due to their size.
  • Something might be recyclable, but not easy to recycle or not recycled widely. For example, some products require special technology to extract the raw material – i.e. paper fibre – for re-use. Examples include used milk and juice cartons, also known as liquid board packaging, and paper cups. There are only two mills in South Africa that have the capacity to recycle cups and cartons, and they are both based in Gauteng.
  • Waste reclaimers and traders may not take certain items as they are deemed low value for them, considering the distances they need to travel and the volumes they are carrying.

Locally recycled

This means that a product is recycled locally in South Africa using available technology. 

  • Recycling is about value in volumes. Whether paper, plastic, glass or tin, recycling is a volumes-driven exercise. 
  • For a product to be recycled, it needs to be commercially viable to do so using standard recycling or specialised processes. This means large volumes of the same paper grade or type need to be processed at the same time to ensure economies of scale. 
  • In some cases, special pulping and processing technology is required to extract the paper fibres before they can enter the paper machine, which can increase the cost of recycling.


Upcycling is the transforming of waste materials or discarded items into new things of better quality and longer use. 

  • For example, cardboard transformed into decorations, a newspaper into an accessory, an old shirt upcycled into a tote bag, a plastic colddrink bottle into a bird feeder, or a tyre into a vegetable garden. In many cases, cardboard boxes are reused for storage.

Biodegradable and compostable

All compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable.

Compostable products are made by organic elements or plants that are able to degrade with time. For example, cellulose, corn starch, bagasse, and others.

  • Compostable products produce humus upon degradation, which is the richest and most important part of all soils.
  • The high level of microbial activity in humus boosts beneficial microbes within the soil which, in turn, assists plants to strengthen their immune systems (Nature’s Path, 2020).
  • Compostable products do not release any toxic element to the environment after degradation.

Biodegradable is a term mainly used in the plastics industry, where the material breaks down into microplastics faster than regular plastic, under any conditions (compost, landfill, soil).

  • It is possible to find biodegradable products made from plant based materials (like corn oil, or starch) or petroleum-based plastic which are easier to degrade.
  • Compared with the composting process, biodegradable products can take several months to break down and some recent studies found that some of these products degrade to leave harmful substances behind such as microplastics.
  • Even if you cannot see it, these micro materials have components toxic to our environment. (Source: Ocean Watch)

Compostable products have undergone strict testing to ensure that they break down within a specific time frame and under certain conditions such as the right degree of temperature, moisture and air flow. Such products do not release anything harmful into the environment. 

Biodegradable products have no such requirements, meaning that they may not be as beneficial as they first appear. (Source: Elevate Packaging)

Useful resources

Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging: A review of the South African landscape (Moss Group on behalf of The South African Initiative to End Plastic Waste)

Design and Management for Circularity – (World Economic Forum)