The Recycle Swop Shop

By Julienne du Toit

Pictures by Chris Marais

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the Hou Moed community centre in Zwelihle township, Hermanus, is alive with the laughter of children.

They are playing pool and killer table tennis. Others are learning how to dance the waltz, the tango and the cha cha cha.

In one part of the yard, a long line of excited children, from tiny to teenage, is starting to form in front of a fenced area. Some carry one or two bags; others are pushing wheelbarrows and supermarket trolleys. Every container is brimming with glass bottles, crushed plastic bottles or cans.

Children line up with the recyclables they have collected.
Children line up with the recyclables they have collected.

Waste becomes ‘money’

Everything is weighed, then assigned a number value.
Everything is weighed, then assigned a number value.

At three o clock, a small team of volunteers starts taking the first bags. The ones filled with bottles are slung up on a portable scale, the weight called out. Collections of plastic bottles and cans are quickly assessed for value. Another volunteer does a few swift calculations and hands the child a small piece of paper with a number on it.

The child gallops off around the building, and starts another line in front of the shop.

Now things get exciting, because inside is a place of treasures, presided over by more volunteers. The kids peer through the door, scanning the room for what they might take home today. On one side are clothes in various kiddy sizes, plus a rack of shoes.

On the other side are the toiletries – soap, toilet paper, tooth brushes, toothpaste, face cloths and towels. There are also pens, rubbers, crayons, colouring-in books and other more mystical objects – torches, stuffed toys, balloons.

For some of them, it will be the very first item they’ve ever picked out for themselves.

Queueing up, the children are full of excitement and anticipation.
Queueing up, the children are full of excitement and anticipation.

Children go Shopping

The first wide-eyed child enters, holding out his piece of paper, on which is written the figure 5 – reflecting the weight and value of the goods he brought into the collection yard.

The volunteer and the child look through the offerings. Notebooks are 4 points (large ones 7). Pens are 4, scissors 6, rulers 5, sharpeners 3, pencils 2, toothbrush 4, face cloth 5, toilet roll 5, and soap 1 (large soap is 5 points).

The clothes are very good value – a pair of shoes goes for 8 to 10, a warm jersey for 10, t-shirts 5, and shorts 3 each.

Volunteers help the children with their 'purchases'.
Volunteers help the children with their ‘purchases’.

Eventually the five-year-old settles on a pencil and a sharpener.

Next is an eight year old, triumphantly bearing a piece of paper representing a veritable fortune – 25 points. It’s a whole shopping experience for her. She tries on clothes and rifles through nearly every item in the shop until triumphantly walking out with her loot: a pair of pants, a cap, two pencils, an eraser AND a toothbrush.

Then comes the next one. The nine-year-old walks out with a dreamy look on his face. For three bags of recyclables, he’s scored a paintbox, a facecloth and two pens.

A few mites that only brought in a few plastic bottles get consolation balloons, some used crayons or pencils.

Picking out a pair of shoes.
Picking out a pair of shoes.

But that’s not all…

Every child is funnelled through another door, where volunteers from the local high school are waiting with donated day-old bread. Each child gets a modest doorstop covered in peanut butter and syrup.

Marilyn van der Velden, the founder of the Recycle Swop Shop in Hermanus, introduces us to one of the 16-year-old volunteers who was once a collector and from such a poor family there was hardly any money for clothes.

Each child gets a generous sandwich made with day-old bread, peanut butter and jam.
Each child gets a generous sandwich made with day-old bread, peanut butter and jam.

Winile was the first learner to earn enough points to ‘buy’ an entire new school uniform. Despite suffering severe epilepsy and crippling migraines, he collected glass bottles from the local tavern and in addition, over the school holidays when the Swop Shop was closed, amassed an incredible 120 kg of plastic bottles.

Marilyn’s husband  Jan, a medical doctor, helped Winile and his father through the medical system to source the right medication to control his epilepsy.

The Recycle Swop Shop is a well-loved project in Hermanus. Marilyn and Jan’s own business, Zoete Inval Traveller’s Lodge, has supported the Recycle Swop Shop, and she says, so have scores of other businesses in the community.

How it Started

The idea for the project was born in 2002.

“At the end of that year, I found myself in a local squatter camp on Christmas Day handing out sweets, distributing gifts and tying balloon animals with an elderly visitor from the US.

“I was stunned.  Prior to this I had seen the children in schools and in institutional settings, but this time I saw the reality of their home life.

“I was unprepared for the shock of the poverty and destitution of children surrounded by nothing but sand and garbage. They didn’t even have toilet paper or soap. I left the township that day and cried out to the Lord, ‘What can anyone do in this sea of need?’

No room to play for children in Zwelihle and many other townships around the country.
No room to play for children in Zwelihle and many other townships around the country.

“It was then that the idea came: Let them use what they have around them and recycle. Of course!  A couple of phone calls, the support of a teacher at the nearest creche, plus the agreement of the manager of the community centre. We were on our way.”

Money from the municipality was channelled into the Recycle Swop Shop to provide a collections yard, an undercover waiting area for children, storage cupboards and garbage bins for Hou Moed.

Children line up with recyclable waste.
Children line up with recyclable waste.

The Idea is Spreading

In nearby Gansbaai, a Recycle Swop Shop was started in Masekhane township in 2006. Housed in a colourful container decorated with handprints, the system is very similar. Running it are staff members of the Great White Shark Project as part of a social responsibility initiative. Dyer Island Cruises also helps support the project.

Locals say the township has definitely become a cleaner place since they started.

Similar Recycle Swop Shops have sprung up in Prince Albert, Hout Bay, Botrivier, Darling, Worcester, Stilbaai, Stellenbosch, Ceres, Knysna and St Francis Bay.

Says Marilyn: “The great thing is that there is no one way to do this. The concept lends itself to adaptation to meet the unique needs of each community it seeks to serve.  The most important thing is just to start. I believe when our motives are right, we succeed.”

The Recycle Swop Shop in Gansbaai started in a shipping container.
The Recycle Swop Shop in Gansbaai started in a shipping container.


A number of towns around the country have contacted Marilyn van der Velden, founder of the original Recycle Swop Shop, to find out how to set up their own. Marilyn says the key ingredients are: “passion, patience, persistence, a place, the people and prayer.”

“In Hermanus, we work together with the Hospice shop and other charities. We pass on any donated adult clothes to them, and they pass on kiddies’ clothes and shoes to us.

How many points have you collected?
How many points have you collected?

“Obviously the received products must be sold or passed on to a recycling company. Just throwing it away would be pointless. But even though Walker Bay Recycling buys our bottles, plastics and cans, it can never be financially viable. Only donations and good will make it work.

“We also recommend that the Recycle Swop Shop be used to serve only children. They learn about recycling, barter, arithmetic, and they pass on an ethic of keeping the community clean to their parents.” It’s only children who are allowed to shop, but parents are welcome to help their children to collect, says Marilyn.

“The Swop Shop vision is to empower children, encouraging them to use what they have around them, to improve their conditions. The future of this country lies in the hands of today’s children. And without hope or dreams, there is no future.”

For more information and a detailed guide on how to start and run a Recycle Swop Shop, see

5 thoughts on “The Recycle Swop Shop

  1. Yetypu says:

    After commuting, in the early 90s, among the leprous 30 year civil war children of Angola, the Surrey charity committee I was on had a thing about the “poor of north Leatherhead” – which is not to say that among the single parent families of north Leatherhead there was not a lot of relative social deprivation.

    Julienne – thank you for this sunny hopeful story. Some of my friends here in England are point-scoring each other after our recent semi-unresolved election. One of their tactics is bemoaning “child poverty” in the UK {which is not to say that …}, so I have posted them the link to this story of yours and suggested that a little moral re-calibration might be in order.

  2. Fee Berry says:

    @Yetypu When you have children stealing tomato sauce packets from dining rooms in the UK because they haven’t eaten over the weekend, I think you can say that poverty IS the word for it. I’m glad that you think the poverty found in the UK isn’t as severe as that found in Africa. Starvation is starvation, whether here or there. Child poverty has soared due to the practice of sanctioning families in receipt of benefits. I think you should visit a food bank and see if you still think that things are not as bad here as there.

    • Yetypu says:

      @Fee Berry, Things are nowhere near as bad in the UK as they are in places in Africa. If people think they are, they are mistaken or wrong. If they claim they are for {left wing} political reasons, they are beneath contempt.

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