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Women are boosting SA’s sustainability efforts, but experts agree that empowerment remains crucial

From scientists and sustainability managers to waste pickers and buy-back centre owners, women are boosting South Africa’s sustainability efforts – but more needs to be done to ensure equal representation.

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

On August 1, women from various parts of the collection and recycling value chain gathered in Killarney, Johannesburg, 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.

“Women are still not equally represented in the industry – especially at higher leadership,” said Preola Adam, PETCO board member and senior sustainability director for Africa at The Coca-Cola Company.

“When women work, they invest 90 per cent of their income back into their families, compared with 35% for men. So, when you empower a woman, you empower a community. It’s also so important to have women at the heart of sustainability programmes,” said Adam.

According to Avashnee Chetty, sustainability manager at leading polymer producer, Safripol, women are best suited to lead the sustainability charge.

“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.

Last year, PETCO supported 104 projects across all provinces – including waste pickers, SMMEs and co-operatives – with various forms of equipment to improve the quantity and quality of post-consumer packaging collected. Forty-one of these projects were women-owned enterprises.

“Women make a strong contribution to the recycling and collection value chain, and the circular economy as a whole,” said PETCO CEO Cheri Scholtz.

Also speaking at the event were Nokubonga Mnyango and Judy Henshall, who are paving the way by empowering communities within the sector.

Mnyango, who in 2014 quit her job as a driver-cum-admin clerk at a wood chipping mill in Richards Bay to start collecting and selling recyclable waste, said she was initially mocked by friends and family for her decision. 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,” said Mnyango, owner of Empangeni’s Uthando Solutions and Trading recycling buy-back centres.

“So, I think we must work together as women,” said Mnyango, who said her husband had encouraged her to register the business in her name. “My husband offered his support and encouragement. We need more men like that who will support us. Not men who seek to take advantage of our success.”

Mnyango said her success was paving the way for other women in her community to follow in her footsteps.

“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.”

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. Last year it was awarded PETCO’s Recycling Partnership Gamechanger accolade.

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,” said Henshall.

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