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Wastepreneur Nokubonga’s hard work recognised

IN 2014, Nokubonga Mnyango quit her job as a driver-cum-admin clerk at a wood chipping mill in Richards Bay for what some community members described as ‘digging in dirty dustbins’. Today, she runs two thriving buy-back centres in Empangeni, employing 22 full-time staff and supporting 100 waste collectors in the community.

Her hard work and passion for recycling have been recognised by South Africa’s longest-standing Producer Responsibility Organisation, PETCO, which on behalf of its members has supported her journey from wastepreneur to buy-back centre owner. The support has empowered Mnyango and helped her keep waste out of the environment and give it value by bringing it into the circular economy. It has also helped Mnyango’s community to thrive.

“My love and passion for the environment drive me. When I quit my job for ‘scratching in dirty dustbins’, people laughed at me. But I knew that this passion would lead me somewhere. The same people who laughed later asked me for jobs,” said Mnyango, who owns and runs Empangeni’s thriving Uthando Solutions and Trading recycling buy-back centres.

Uthando collects about 202 tonnes per month of mixed recyclables – including various plastics, paper, cardboard, and cans – which, in turn, are sold to recyclers. It boasts 22 permanent employees who collect and sort recyclables. It also buys recyclables from 100 waste collectors for its two operational sites in Ngwelezane and Kuleka, Empangeni.

Mnyango’s success story is one of many, thanks to PETCO’s initiatives on behalf of its members over the past 18 years. Only recently – in 2021 – did Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) become legislated. It makes it mandatory for producers of packaged goods to take responsibility for the management of their packaging – from designing it to be recyclable, to its post-use collection to be recycled and re-used.

For Mnyango, it was waste littering the environment that drove her to pursue her dream of opening her own buy-back centre.

“I resigned as a driver-cum-admin clerk at a wood chipping mill in Richards Bay in 2014 to pursue my dream of living in a litter-free society. I started collecting recyclables in the community, doing house-to-house awareness, and asking people to work with me.”

PETCO’s vast experience in the EPR space has meant that its processes for identifying, analysing and then supporting and growing grassroots recycling businesses are well-oiled and carefully coordinated. Mnyango’s success story thanks to this crucial support is just one of many countrywide under the PETCO umbrella.

Based on an analysis of Mnyango’s business, PETCO sponsored a large, branded recycling collection trailer when Uthando Solutions hit the milestone of two tonnes of recyclate collection per month in 2016. The brand awareness from the large trailer, coupled with its added collection capacity, helped the business take off.

PETCO continued to support and mentor Mnyango as her collection volumes increased.

“Apart from attending workshops and training co-hosted by PETCO, its sponsorship in 2017 of a 6m office container and signage helped me to increase my collection volumes to seven tonnes a month, and later to 30 tonnes a month.”

PETCO’s latest backing is the installation of a baling machine at Uthando’s Empangeni site, for the baling of collected recyclables.

“The baler will help us to bale more recyclable materials and sell them to recycling companies more regularly, increasing our turnover and cash flow to buy more recyclables from the community and keep waste out of the environment,” said Mnyango, adding that Uthando collected recyclables from households, Lakeside Mall, Ngwelezane Hospital, informal collectors and shops.

“The machine’s operations will result in more storage space for recyclable materials, allowing us to expand our collection to other areas,” said Mnyango.

PETCO CEO Cheri Scholtz said Mnyango’s success story was proof that the organisation’s support on behalf of its members went further than merely sponsoring equipment.

“Apart from positively impacting the environment, we facilitate business growth which leads to sustainable livelihoods, employment, and on a broader scale, community upliftment,” Scholtz said.

“Our objective is keeping our members’ packaging out of the environment, starting with helping them design packaging which, at the end of its life stage, can be recycled into other products of value. Succeeding in having packaging collected, recycled and reused helps us build a circular economy.”

She added that keeping members compliant brought greater value in supporting each business’s individual environmental, social and governance objectives.

“As our country relies on a high proportion of informal collection, we are building a sustainable collection and recycling value chain at the same time.”.

Scholtz said because PETCO now administered multiple EPR schemes for a range of identified products such as PET bottles, their associated closures and labels, as well as liquid board packaging, there were greater collection and income opportunities for people working in the informal sector.