A walk through history with Collect-a-Can

Whilst most people who know Collect-a-Can believe it to be 18 years old this year, the company has in fact been in operation since 1976 making it 35 years old! The name Collect-a-Can was adopted when the company was re-launched in 1993. The history of how Collect-a-Can became established makes for interesting reading.

Up until the early seventies recycling was a foreign concept in South Africa. This all changed in 1975 when the National Veld Trust began exerting environmental pressure on organisations, particularly those involved in the manufacturing of packaging materials, to “clean up their act” and take responsibility for the waste that they were generating. At the time, tons of packaging materials, including cans, were being dumped and buried in municipal refuse dumps.

In 1976 Metal Box and Crown Cork (the predecessors of Nampak and ArcelorMittal) registered a company called Steelrec (Pty) Ltd to address this issue.  Sceptics at the time suggested that the operation was established purely to avert further political pressure and without a true focus or commitment to environmental issues in mind.

The company was originally based in Industria in Johannesburg with the intention of expanding nationally. Their modus operandi was to distribute drums to charity organisations, churches, garages and shopping centres for people to fill with used cans.  Steelrec would regularly empty the drums and pay cash for the cans.  Once collected the cans were sorted (to separate out aluminium cans, dirt and general scrap) and compacted into bales.  Due to lack of market for the cans initially they piled up until they filled an area the size of a soccer field. With the cans stagnating in one location they started attracting bees and flies which raised complaints from the public.  By now the company had spread to other parts of the country, including the Kruger Park, but despite its rapid growth it was running at a loss.  People collecting cans did so for love of the environment as a ton of cans at that time would fetch only R27 compared to approximately R800 per ton that is paid by Collect-a-Can today.

With no one to sell the can scrap on to the outlook for Steelrec was bleak but fortunately the operation was revived when, as part of their own commitment to the environment, Iscor (now ArcelorMittal) started accepting the can scrap to mix with other scrap for mild steel production. This led to the first collection depot in West Turffontein being established.

In 1993 it was decided to re-launch the organisation under the name Collect-a-Can (Pty) Ltd and to turn it into a truly focused operation with the committed support of its shareholders. The company has made enormous strides since that day. Not only has Collect-a-Can been able to prove the sceptics wrong (although there are still some of them today), but it has grown from a young fledgling can collector into an established brand name in the recycling arena and increased the can collection rate from 18% in 1993 to 70% in 2010.

Great strides have been made in South Africa too around environmental awareness and the recycling and waste management industry. At the time of the first democratic elections in 1994 there were no other established recycling operations (except for very small operators) and there was not even talk of a Waste Management Bill or global warming, although the first concerns about holes forming in the earth’s ozone layer had just been raised. On the recycling front, scrap dealers did not accept used cans because of its “rubbish” nature and the word e-waste did not even exist. Today we have a Waste Management Bill in its final stages in Parliament and a worldwide movement to promote greener living. And scrap metal dealers now compete to buy used cans from collectors.

Collect-a-Can now has five branches across South Africa as well as individual branches in Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique ensuring that the problem of post-consumer can litter on the Southern African sub-continent is addressed.  The branches have a network of small collectors and bigger scrap metal merchants and other recycling companies which ensure the flow of cans from the litter and landfill stream is addressed on a sustainable basis.

Collect-a-Can would not be  where they are today were it not for the committed collectors, transport companies, scrap metal merchants and recycling companies, media commentators, teachers and learners, government officials, politicians, local authorities, can fillers, their distributors and retailers, the hospitality industry, environmentalists, conservation groups and companies, NGO’s, and of course the shareholders, sponsors and employees who have made a concerted effort to bring about these successes.

For more information visit Collect-a-Can’s website www.collectacan.co.za or contact Collect-a-Can’s head office on 011 466 2939. You can also follow Collect-a-Can on Facebook and Twitter.