Working paper number: 467
Author: Noelene le Cordier, Reggie Mayman, Refilwe Mofokeng and Nicoli Nattrass
Unit: CSSR


The University of Cape Town (UCT) is one of Africa’s premier universities. It is located on the slopes of Table Mountain with its upper campus jutting into a nature reserve: the Table Mountain National Park. One might thus presume that the university has both the incentive and capacity to become a global leader on living sustainably with nature on the urban edge. Yet as of the end of 2021, after more than 30 years of plans and commitments to becoming a green campus, UCT recycled very little of its waste.

This paper begins by pointing to the history and managerial challenges that sit at the heart of the problem. Recycling is not simply a matter of awareness-raising and behaviour change as it is profoundly shaped by labour relations (including changes from contract cleaning to insourced staff in 2016), and managerial practices. There have been long standing and persisting problems pertaining to poor recycling awareness, supervision and management of cleaners, infrastructure limitations and poor recycling behaviour across the university community.

We show that there has been recent improvement in recycling infrastructure, but that much recycling ends up in bins destined for landfill. We report the results of an audit of ‘basic correct recycling’ – that is the percentage of recyclable bottles, tins and food containers placed in the correct bin conducted during 2021. As of June 2021, recycling behaviour at UCT was little better than random and workers were persisting in placing the incorrect bin liners in recycling bins, meaning that much recycling placed in the correct bin inadvertently ended up in the landfill.

We also report the results of an intervention conducted in September 2021 to improve basic recycling through improved signage on external bins. We conducted a before-and-after analysis of external bins that were provided with improved signage, and we compared outcomes to bins that were not provided with improved signage. The results were disappointing in that there was no statistically significant difference in basic recycling from improved signage. This suggested that more radical interventions and institutional changes were necessary.

Publication file: LeCodierMaymanMofokengNattrass