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The Truth About Recycling: Is It Really Necessary?

I have meant to address this topic for some time now but, because it doesn’t fit directly into garden design, I tend to push it to the bottom of the list. However, as we find ourselves in the midst of one of many municipal strikes in Durban and I witness the absolute panic in the frantic notes that residents are leaving on community chats about their refuse not being collected (we are into our second week now), I realise that all is not well in the ‘rubbish department’.

Recycling is not difficult to do, but it is a commitment and one from which you cannot walk away when it no longer suits you. I face this dilemma every time I have a greasy, almost-empty peanut butter jar that I need to clean before adding it to the plastic or glass recycling bag. Should I waste at least six sheets of kitchen towel wiping the peanut butter out of the container, or do I fill it with hot, soapy water until the residue frees itself from the sides of the container and I then have to deal with greasy bits of peanut butter floating in my sink. (Good news about the peanut butter a little further along).

Do I really have to wash the blood off the meat packaging before I stuff that awful plastic wrap into an empty 2-litre cold drink container and make an eco-brick, and is recycling really necessary?

The answer to these questions is, Yes, it is, and Yes, you do. Every time.


We, as residents of this world, and not just our individual suburbs, need to take responsibility for all the waste we generate because the landfills are full! To capacity. And this is a global problem.

Aside from that, waste causes a build up of toxins in the soil and the air, but those in the ground are quick to leach into the ground water that feeds out streams and boreholes. It isn’t just the waste you can see that impacts  your health; its the unseen that is equally lethal!


You need to recycle each and every day. Every time you or a family member is about to generate waste, recycle it. I am going to give you simple solutions today but if you get onto social media – TikTok, Facebook or Instagram and key in recycling, you will find the most innovative ideas from people on recycling – down to your old mascara brush, ladies – and your toothbrush, gents – that will astound you.


So, let’s begin with garden waste, food waste and then household waste. I really hope that, as you read this, you think ‘I knew that’, ‘yup, I do this all the time’, and ‘didn’t she know about this idea or that idea’.

However, if these ideas are all new to you, then that’s also wonderful because you are never too old to join the recycling movement.

Garden waste :  This can be broken into several categories (a) cut lawn (b) twigs and sticks (c) weeds (d) removing an entire tree (e) general cleaning waste – dead flowers, leaves on the ground, etc.

Compost heaps are the best idea for recycling general, healthy garden waste (i.o.w. no weeds or diseased plants) such as cut lawn, small twigs and sticks, leaves in autumn and fresh kitchen waste (outer leaves of vegetables, peels, etc. – more on this later). You don’t need a huge heap and it can be constructed on flat ground and the pile managed carefully or in an inexpensive, built structure. It is ideal to have two heaps/structures so that when one is almost ready, you can start your second, but you can always stockpile your garden waste for a short period without it attracting flies and other undesirables.  If you would like to know how to build and manage a compost heap, our short course Essential Steps to Maintaining your Gardenwill give you all the advice and knowledge that you need.

If you have the space, bury your weeds and diseased matter. I do. Dig a square hole at least 1 square metre and throw all your weeds in the hole. Every now and then, add some soil to the waste and press it down to compress it. Between the addition of soil and periodic rain, this garden waste will decompose in no time at all. And just when you think that the hole is filled to capacity, it will subside further and provide even more space for more weeds.

Herb garden planted over garden waste pit
Herb garden planted over garden waste pit

This is an herb garden I created over one of my many ‘weed holes’. The main hole is under the pot containing the Asparagus fern. It took about two years to stabilise but, even now, the soil subsides on one side periodically so we pull back the Weedguard fabric under the stone, fill the hole, and replace both material and stone. It’s not a big job but it shows that the garden waste underneath is still decomposing.

In residential areas, there are always businesses that provide wood chipping and planking services that are on the lookout for recently felled trees. Ask on a local community group if anyone knows a service provider who offers this service and let them come to your home and chip the wood on site – there will be a small cost to you, but no more than a refuse removal company, and then you get to keep and use all of that beautiful chipped wood as a mulch for paths and garden beds. If someone planks wood on site, they won’t charge you because they will later sell the wood, and you may even end up with a few beautiful planks of wood to use as shelving in your home.

Other gardening recyclables include old bricks, cobble stones and even empty bottles that can be used to define the edges of paths. If your home is very stylish, then use these recyclables in the vegetable garden instead or as a path to your compost heap where one might expect to see older material in use.

Timber slats, excess shade cloth and chicken wire can all be repurposed to keep dogs out of garden beds, birds off ripening fruit, building bird feeders (see below) or insect hotels. Any stones you have lying around can be stacked neatly and a dish or bowl placed on top for a bird bath. There are so many recycling ideas than can also be turned into a product to sell.

Upcycled bird bath made from garden waste
Repurposed garden waste bird bath made out of stone

Fresh kitchen waste : A lot of fresh kitchen waste can be put on top of the compost heap for birds and other small mammals to feast on. No, it will not attract snakes unless the snake sees a rat or mouse (they are on your property, like it or not) that could be his meal. Snakes do not burrow into compost heaps – a pile of leaves, yes, but not in the compost as it is either too moist or hot.

Other ways to recycle this material is to have a worm bin, a bokashi bin or to freeze fresh peels, offcuts etc., and, when you have enough, cook them up into a vegetable stock that can be strained off and put into jars or used immediately.

Worm bin for food scrap composting and vermiculture
Bokashi bin for food scrap composting

On the earlier topic of peanut butter, I saw a post the other day where the person suggested adding a bit of diary cream or coconut cream to the peanut butter jar, shaking it until it was mixed and then either using it in a curry or as a salad dressing. I am definitely going to try this!

Leftover cooked foods that contain salt, spices, meat or bones can be put into a Bokashi bin and the decomposed residue from that bin later buried in the soil where it will nourish the soil.

The leachate from the waste food is collected, diluted with a bit of water and used to fertilise plants, as happens with the leachate from a worm bin. I personally don’t enjoy a Bokashi bin, so I try and use cooked food up as quickly as possible (a meal or two), or if they are scraps from others’ plates or just too much, I freeze the food so that it doesn’t attract flies in the bin and put it out on the day when my refuse is collected. As I write this, I realise that this is not ideal, so I think I need to wrap my head around getting a new Bokashi container.

Tins and glass : Not only are these items excellent products to re-use in the kitchen or as planters for herbs and other seedlings, there is money to be made from these items for non-profit organisations. Glass can be recycled in the home for when you are bottling vegetables, as sweet jars, containers for jewelry, pretty soaps, candle holders, decorative containers for the table – look on Pinterest where you will find a host of ideas for empty glass jars. I use all my coffee bottles as storage for my various lentil and pasta products. In this humid part of the world (Kwazulu-Natal) they work so well in keeping the product fresh.

It is vital that you remove the label from your cans, wash them and, if the lid is completely separate, slip it into the can and then squeeze the can closed at the top. This will prevent children or dogs from cutting themselves on the lid.

Some municipalities have separate bags for these items, otherwise put them into different packaging and leave them out with your municipal waste for bin pickers to collect. Otherwise take them to a designated recycling depot or charity organization. If you throw them out with your general waste, they might either never be found, or you will encourage bin pickers to dig through your entire weeks’ worth of rubbish (which should be minimal if you are a recycler), making it inconvenient for the municipal staff.

Upcycled tins as planters
Upcycled tins as planters

Bin Pickers : On the topic of bin pickers, they are a sad reality in suburban life and most residents regard them as a nuisance factor or a security risk. I say ‘sad’ because how tragic that many folk are in the position of having to live off others’ household waste to survive. But they are also invaluable in the recycling process. So here is how you can assist them to get through their work quickly.

(a)    If you have left-over food that is still safe to be eaten (food from the night before or bread that is not stale) put it into a clean bag or plastic container (not your finest Tupperware but one of those from the supermarket that contained salad ingredients or an over-the-counter meal), wrap it tightly in a separate packet and leave it to one side. If you live in an area where monkeys are the ones picking through your bins, at least they will get something to eat without going through glass and tins that could cut them.


(b)    Tins and glass can be sold for money, so separate those from your general waste and put them in a clear/orange bag for the pickers to identify immediately.


(c)     Food that is no longer edible should be frozen or ideally placed in a Bokashi bin. A Bokashi bin will also mean that you no longer have to throw out sharp bones that are dangerous to dogs that search through municipal dumps.


(d)    Clothing : Leave unwanted but wearable clothing in a separate packet for the bin pickers as well, otherwise there is no end to the charity shops and other organisations that will appreciate your donation. If you are creative, there are a multitude of ideas for repurposing old clothes, even if it just means turning them into rags to wash the car. Or why not make a scarecrow with the kids, for your vegetable garden. 


I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recycling in this article. I really hope that many of you will be thinking – gosh, she could have said this or that and given us so many more ideas. One could write an entire book on recycling (good idea!)

But think for a minute how minimal our household waste would be if each of us recycled in this way.

For those of you who have never paid much attention to recycling, I hope that this gets you started and that you will post some pics on our Facebook page, The School of Garden Design, showing us what you have achieved.

Recycling is no longer an option. We are all part of this massive problem and we each need to be a part of the solution!

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