How To Separate and Recycle Paper and Packaging

separating plastic packaging and paper for recycling

The latest statistics show that South Africans send 90% of their waste to landfills or open dumpsites, often leaving valuable recyclables in the mix. If you’ve ever driven down a city street on bin day, you may be familiar with the waste pickers that save some of these recyclables from such a tragic fate.

Although retrieving recyclable materials from the dustbin works to some degree, separating them from other rubbish in the first place is a far better approach. This practice is known as separation at the source and can help increase recycling rates. It keeps dry materials away from wet kitchen or garden waste, which can contaminate the recyclables and render them useless to recyclers.

How To Separate Paper and Packaging for Recycling: A Step-by-Step Guide

1: Find a Local Recycler

According to Plastics SA, there are a minimum of 300 recycling companies in South Africa, ranging from small-scale recyclers to large operations. Some private companies offer collection services, picking up your recyclables directly from your home or office, while others provide recycling drop-off points around major city centres.

Here are some recycling companies that recycle paper and packaging in South Africa:

Many schools, community centres, libraries, and shopping centres also run recycling programmes or offer drop-off points for recycling on their premises. The Sustainable Seas Trust created an interactive map you can use to locate e-waste, glass, paper, and plastic banks, reverse vending machines, and other recycling drop-off sites near you:

Alternatively, you can support informal recycling businesses by leaving your recyclables in a separate bag next to your dustbin on bin day. This method helps waste pickers use your recycling to earn a living by selling it to buy-back centres.

2: Get Bags or Containers to Separate Your Recyclables

Once you’ve decided where your recyclables will end up, it’s time to start collecting. You will need to develop a separation system in your home to keep recyclable materials away from other waste. You can use bags, boxes, or plastic containers – whatever works best for your space.

  • Plastic containers are stackable and work well if you want to keep your recycling tucked away in a pantry or broom cupboard. This option is neat and tidy and works best for transporting recyclables to a drop-off centre in your private car.
  • Clear plastic bags are best if you’re looking for convenience – you can place the entire bag on the pavement on bin day for local waste pickers to collect. You can use these bags to line a few outdoor dustbins to keep different materials apart.
  • Woven Garden Master bags are strong and durable, and allow you to collect large volumes of recyclables. Choose this option if you want to extend the time between trips to the drop-off centre.

3. Separate Paper Waste

It’s best practice to keep paper and cardboard separate from your other recyclables. This keeps it clean, dry, and in optimal condition for recycling. There are different grades of paper – each grade has a specific material content and is of different value to recyclers. You can separate your paper by grade if you have the space, but recyclers will generally do this part for you.

The four main grades of paper in South Africa are:
  1. Mechanical grade (newspapers and magazines)
  2. High-grade paper (printer paper)
  3. Corrugated cardboard and kraft paper
  4. Special grade (coated cartons, Tetrapak)

You can also recycle old books, notepads, till slips, egg cartons, envelopes, wrapping paper, paper bags, birthday cards, and boxes. Folding or crushing bulky paper packaging makes it easier to store – remember to remove staples, sellotape, and other non-paper parts before recycling.

4. Rinse and Store Other Recyclable Packaging

You can recycle plastic, aluminium, steel, and glass packaging as well. If you plan to give your recyclables to waste pickers in your area, you don’t need to separate them and can place everything in one bag. However, if you’re taking recyclables to a drop-off point, you’ll need to collect each material separately.

Always rinse your recyclables to remove food, grease, and dirt before putting them in the recycling bin. You can do this with plain water or dishwashing soap, and many plastic containers can actually go in the dishwasher! Don’t worry about removing paper labels from glass bottles – the recycling company will do that for you.

5. Drop Off Your Recyclables or Put Them on the Pavement on Collection Day

Once you’ve collected enough recyclables to fill your bags or containers you can drop them off at a recycling bank or place them on the pavement for local waste pickers to collect. Always use clear plastic bags for your recycling, so municipal rubbish collection services don’t take them away with the rest of the trash.

Take note of the items your local recyclers leave behind and find new ways to recycle those. For example, if they consistently leave polystyrene containers, consider collecting those separately and taking it to one of our partners.

6. Items That Should NOT go in the Recycling Bin

Separating your recyclables is supposed to make things easier for recyclers and waste pickers, helping them sort through waste faster and save more packaging from landfills. However, when recyclables are contaminated with non-recyclable materials, it can cause problems at recycling facilities – sometimes damaging machines or ruining a batch of recycling.

Never put the following items in your general recycling:
  • Tissues and paper towel
  • Clingwrap
  • Dirty aluminium foil
  • Plastic straws and disposable cutlery
  • Organic waste, such as vegetable peels and dead flowers – start a compost bin in your garden instead.
  • Broken glassware and ceramics
  • Batteries, lightbulbs, and other e-waste – take these items to special recycling facilities.
  • Old clothes, kitchen towels, and other fabrics: donate old clothes or send torn, unusable items to animal shelters where they can become blankets and bed stuffing.

Finally, remember that switching to an eco-friendly lifestyle takes time. Don’t worry if you can’t recycle absolutely everything at first – start small and take it at your own pace – every little bit helps!

If you are involved in the paper or packaging industry and looking for ways to recycle, the EPR Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) can help you – email us at for more information.


  1. Images (royalty-free): | |
  2. Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) – South African Standard Grade Definitions of Recovered Paper and Board
  3. PlasticsSA: The state of South African recycling companies
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