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From scientists and sustainability managers to waste pickers and buy-back centre owners, women are boosting and leading South Africa’s sustainability efforts!


South Africa (13 August, 2023) — From scientists and sustainability managers to waste pickers and buy-back centre owners, women are leading South Africa’s sustainability efforts and making a difference in the lives of those around them.

This was felt powerfully at the beginning of August where women from various parts of the collection and recycling value chain gathered in Johannesburg’s Killarney for an event organised by PETCO themed: Empowering and Celebrating the Women of the Collection, Sorting and Recycling Industry.

Attendees included representatives from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, the African Reclaimers Organisation, buy-back centre owners, brands, recyclers, polymer producers and plastic converters.

The event highlighted just how much South African women are doing to boost SA’s sustainability efforts, but also emphasized how equal representation in the industry needs to become a priority.

This is according to experts within the sector, as well as the country’s longest-standing Producer Responsibility Organisation, PETCO, which oversees collection and recycling efforts of post-consumer packaging throughout the country.

“Women are still not equally represented in the waste industry – especially at higher leadership – but this is changing as industries and corporations at large learn the power of having more diverse teams,” said Preola Adam, PETCO board member.

“It’s said that for every dollar earned by a woman, 90 cents goes back to the community. When you empower a woman, you empower a community.

“Statistically, women and girls face the greatest impacts of the climate crisis, amplifying the gender inequalities that already exist and so women need to be at the heart of sustainability programmes, both in its design and implementation,” she concluded.

Women Lead the Sustainability Charge

According to Avashnee Chetty, sustainability manager at leading polymer producer, Safripol:

“We as women are resilient and amazing. If you think of the impact we have just in our own households – we are the glue that keeps the family together; we are the glue that keeps society together,” Chetty said.

For community leaders like Nokubonga Mnyango and Judy Henshall, joining the sustainability movement has been one of the most positive decisions for them and the areas they serve.

Nokubonga for one, quit her job in 2014 as a driver-cum-admin clerk at a wood chipping mill in Richards Bay to start collecting and selling recyclable waste.  She shared that she was initially mocked by friends and family for her decision, but today, she runs two thriving buy-back centres in Empangeni which employ 22 full-time staff and support over 100 waste pickers in the community.

“As women, sometimes it’s hard to work in this space. In this industry, men sometimes refuse to help us when we start out, then try to take advantage by asking to partner with us once we succeed,” Nokubonga explains.

“So, I think we must work together as women,” she adds before elaborating that her success helps pave the success of other women in her community which in turn, makes the community a better space to be a part of.

“I’m proud. If you come to my hometown, you won’t see any recyclable plastic lying about because it’s been collected for recycling.”

Judy Henshall, who formed thriving women’s cooperative Masekhethele with Phalaborwa buy-back centre owner Willie Ramoshaba, said the programme employed 66 full-time staff.

“When we got involved with Masekhethele, I met these amazing women who embodied the spirit of free enterprise,” said Henshall, adding that Masekhethele created products for the local economy as well as for export.

With its base in Johannesburg, Masekhethele supports women waste pickers in Phalaborwa who source recyclables to be transformed into high-quality products by local sewing groups, entrepreneurs and trained seamstresses, creating jobs for more women.

“It’s not just a project,” she said. “It’s a movement. We’re working towards closing the [circular economy] loop,” Judy shares.

Sources: Supplied/PETCO
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About the Author

Ashleigh Nefdt is a writer for Good Things Guy.

Ashleigh's favourite stories have always seen the hidden hero (without the cape) come to the rescue. As a journalist, her labour of love is finding those everyday heroes and spotlighting their spark - especially those empowering women, social upliftment movers, sustainability shakers and creatives with hearts of gold. When she's not working on a story, she's dedicated to her canvas or appreciating Mother Nature.

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