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Women leading the charge in South Africa’s circular economy

Written by Editor

February 20, 2024

Driving change: The transformative role of South African women in sustainability

By Raine St.Claire

In South Africa, women are taking centre stage in driving sustainability initiatives across various roles, from scientific endeavours to waste management. A recent event, ‘Empowering and Celebrating the Women of the Collection, Sorting, and Recycling Industry,’ brought attention to the significant contributions of South African women to sustainability, while also shedding light on the urgent need for equal representation within the sector. 

The event showcased the substantial contributions of South African women to sustainability but emphasised the need for equal representation in the industry.

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.

Avashnee Chetty, sustainability manager at Safripol, highlighted the essential role of women in contributing to sustainability efforts and their unique and vital contributions to the broader community. “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.”

Women leading the charge in South Africa's circular economy

Importance of women in sustainability

The economic and community benefits derived from women’s active involvement in sustainability initiatives are multifaceted, fostering not only environmental stewardship but also promoting social equity, enhancing community resilience, and paving the way for a more inclusive and sustainable future for generations to come.


Voices from the field

Stories of women making a difference in their communities like Nokubonga Mnyango and Judy Henshall exemplify the transformative impact of women in South Africa’s sustainability landscape. Joining the sustainability movement has been one of the most positive decisions for them and the areas they serve.

Nokubonga Mnyango, for instance, traded in her multi-purpose role as driver and admin clerk at a wood chipping mill in Richards Bay to playing a key role in sustainability.

Nokubonga says that despite initial scepticism from friends and family, she persevered, establishing two thriving buy-back centres in Empangeni. “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.” 

Today, these centres employ 22 full-time staff and support over 100 waste pickers in the community, contributing to both environmental preservation and community development. “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,” she shares.

Judy Henshall, a community leader who formed the Masekhethele women’s cooperative with buy-back centre owner Willie Ramoshaba, shared her positive experience within the sustainability movement. “When we got involved with Masekhethele, I met these amazing women who embodied the spirit of free enterprise.” 

The cooperative, operating in Phalaborwa, employs 66 full-time staff and creates products for both the local and export markets. By transforming recyclables into high-quality products, Masekhethele not only supports local economies but also fosters sustainable practices. There is a growing commitment to ensuring equal representation, fostering a more inclusive industry, and building a sustainable and equitable future for all.

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


Source: PETCO

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