#LearningCurve | Saving world, one truck at a time

Recycling business Greencycle began with need to set an example to daughter, help protect environment

Laura Henderson from Greencycle
Laura Henderson from Greencycle
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

Her recycling business was started as she wanted to show her daughter what could be done to protect the environment. And 10 years later, Laura Henderson still hopes to save the world through Greencycle – one truck of waste at a time.

Can you give me some background on yourself and how the business was started?

I arrived in South Africa from England in 2000, to fulfil my dream of working with wildlife.

In 2008, following a period of staying at home with my daughter, I wanted to get back into the workplace and do something I truly believed in.

A friend and I had been struggling with recycling [for a school project] and decided to see if people were interested in having curbside collections, as they do in other countries.

That’s how Greencycle was born. I also had a vision of my daughter asking me what I had done to try and save our environment – this was it.

What is your core service?

The curbside collections of all recyclable waste, no matter how small the amount or mixed the content is.

We wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to be responsible for the disposal of their waste.

We provide confidential document shredding solutions to many clients.

Thousands of items are sent to a new home for reuse, the most popular being jam jars and bottles, to supply many of the home industries around town.

We also sell plastic bottles, ice cream tubs, stationery, shredded magazines for packaging and cardboard boxes.

All these items can get another use before being recycled – further reducing the need to use virgin resources.

What makes your business unique?

We were the first and still one of only a few to offer curbside recycling collections in Port Elizabeth, and we are a registered non-profit organisation, which means that any income received from customers and sales remains in the organisation to cover costs and the salaries of its 18 employees.

What are some of the biggest inhibitors your business faced in getting off the ground?

Finding places to send the recyclables to, once they were sorted, was a huge challenge initially. Most material waste is processed outside Port Elizabeth, so there are transport costs and logistical challenges.

There was also having to deal with many people’s view that being able to recycle should be free and should be a service provided by the municipality.

We knew that the municipality was facing many expensive and urgent challenges in 2008 and that providing recycling services was not going to happen any time soon, so we decided to start providing the service ourselves rather than wait.

We also had to educate the public that to collect, sort, store and transport recyclable waste separately from other “rubbish” is costly, and that even where municipalities provide this service, they include the costs in the rates and taxes.

Greencycle does what it can to promote recycling in Walmer township where it can offer small rebates on certain items because of its proximity to our warehouse.

What are some of your biggest challenges in day-to-day business operations?

We must stretch the budget as far as possible, which means tight scheduling and running a lean practice. Juggling the needs of staff, space and time are also daily challenges.

There are a few myths about recycling that pop up regularly, the biggest being that there is lots of money to be made from selling the recycling. There are large-scale recyclers that specialise in one or a few types of higher value recyclable material, but they only collect large amounts of the same material.

Greencycle collects as wide a variety of recyclables as possible, of whatever value and in small amounts.

How do you measure success in your business?

On a day-to-day basis, I want to make sure we do what we promise to do, which is to collect our customers’ recycling, efficiently and on time. More broadly, becoming self-sustaining (which took nine years) has been hugely rewarding, and I look forward to going from strength to strength. We have kept almost three million kilogrammes out of the landfills – now that’s a success.

What are some of the best practices that have made your business successful?

My goal since inception has been to provide an excellent service and make it easy for people to do the right thing.

Ten years ago, it was all but impossible to recycle on an individual level, as there simply was nowhere to take most items.

I value being available to customers, being efficient, being ethical and making sure we do what we say we will do.

What do you think should be our first priority in terms of environmentally friendly practices?

Recycling is one of the easiest things that can be done on an individual and business level. There is a misconception that it is complicated, and that is simply not the case. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, all packaging will be recyclable.

There are lots of signs that the process has started, and I am delighted.

Off-Chute shopping bags are our latest project. These bags are made from leftover material from the parachute manufacturing process and made by community sewing initiatives.

The bags should last a lifetime and do away with the need for plastic bags.

What is your company’s vision?

Our vision is to save the planet, and our role in that process is to enable recycling on an individual level.

What is your target market?

Our target market is residential customers and small to medium businesses.

What are some of your highlights in running your business?

I love watching the trucks leave the yard laden with waste that would have gone to landfill. We have some amazing customers whose support and encouragement lifts me. It is a great feeling that you are doing something that is important, that you believe in and that it is appreciated.

Do you have any plans for expanding the business, and how would you go about this?

Expansion has been a natural progression, having started with 50 customers, two employees (my friend Louise and me) and a small bakkie in 2008, and growing to 1 500 customers, 18 team members and three vehicles in 2018. The gradual expansion allowed us to learn as we grew.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your business journey so far?

It’s hard work, it requires dedication and determination, as well as support from all our role players.

What have been the greatest part of running your business in Port Elizabeth?

The people are friendly and open to new ideas, and I am truly grateful for the support and opportunities afforded us from the community.

What do you think are the three key traits of a successful entrepreneur?

Consistently high standards, solid work ethic and discipline.