Coming clean about plastic waste: Let’s make it pay

Business

Coming clean about plastic waste: Let’s make it pay

South Africa recycles more as a percentage of plastic waste produced than Europe - what more can be done?

Giulietta Talevi

Plastics SA released some fascinating statistics this week – including that South Africa recycles more as a percentage of plastic waste produced than Europe, with recycling rates at just over 43% compared to our Northern peers’ 31%.
Other stats are breathtaking too but for the wrong reasons: around 12% of metros in SA don’t have any formal waste collection system at all, while only a fraction of households give any thought to separating their rubbish, despite its contribution to both the formal and informal economy. 
Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom answers whether there’s scope for more to be recycled.Yes and no. You will never be able to collect or recycle 100% of what’s put onto the market – the bumper of your car, for example, or your dashboard. But there is scope. Europe has set a target of 65% by 2025. We believe in terms of what’s possible and what’s available, 65% is what we’re aiming for in the next five years. Remember we only do mechanical recycling, we do not produce fuel from waste.
What’s the difference?
In mechanical recycling you literally reprocess the material and you use it as plastic again in another product. If you talk incineration, you burn material and create energy from steam and so on.Of plastic waste collected, 34% comes from landfills. Does that mean South Africans could be a lot more proactive?
It’s a collaboration between various parties including the government, retailers, land owners and consumers. The issue is really that waste management in SA is not in place.
Even if we collect waste from households at the moment it’s not separated so it still goes to landfills and gets contaminated. There’s a mind shift that needs to take place. Even in areas where separation at source is implemented, your participation rate is 20% to 24% so it’s not very high. We need to think differently. On the industry side there are areas we need to look at: we over-package things so how do you minimise the amount of packaging that we use.You say that local recyclers “face an uphill battle” when it comes to selling their products. Why is that? And how sustainable an economic model is the plastics recycling business?
It’s a voluntary system at the moment and for us in SA it absolutely needs to make economic sense otherwise we wouldn’t have recycling. It’s different to Europe where it’s more a concern about environmental impact.
Why we’re battling is because to process recycled materials is a little more complex than just virgin material – you have all sorts of issues like impurities and so on. So the production process is different and therefore there’s a difference between the virgin material price and your recyclate. So as your prices come down for virgin material it puts pressure on the recycled material price.
If you go back to the process, we don’t separate at households so we don’t get clean material coming in, so our recycling processes include a lot more washing tanks etc, and that’s an added cost. You probably could do with fewer washing tanks if waste was separated at households.Waste pickers collect from households and there’s a cost. They they sell it to buy-back centres who will collect from a variety of pickers until there’s enough waste to bale it so they can sell it to a recycler, so there are more steps in the process and each of these steps add a cost.
And because the virgin material is linked to the crude oil price, as that moves up and down, that differentiation for the producer to use virgin versus recyclate comes into play.
If we look at last year specifically on polyethylene, we saw a drop in demand for that material, directly related to the drought that we had. A lot of that material is used in the agricultural sector and  the whole economic decline that we’ve seen in the building industry too, has also put further pressure on growing demand.
How do you grow demand?
For the sort of demand we supply into, it’s balancing out. If we want to collect more we need to create the demand. Now for example, let’s use shampoo bottles: maybe one way would be to have more recycled content in shampoo bottles, for example. By increasing the volumes that you use within an existing product you will increase demand for recyclate.But you need to do R&D as well. Overseas, in tar roads, instead of using gravel chips they use plastic and glass. In India they’re also making floor tiles from plastic. So there are those sorts of opportunities that we need to explore and find ways into those markets.
Is it also a feature of economic growth? Is that element of the equation missing?
Yes, more economic growth means more spending money  and your middle class will buy more stuff. The more developed countries become the more plastic they use – white goods, TVs etc.
How do you encourage people to be more proactive?
We need to do a lot more education awareness. From Plastics SA’s side we currently focus on 4 hot spots: Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and the Kruger Park, where we deal with schools and communities around the river catchment areas because what we do inland ends up in the ocean. There are a lot of initiatives to educate school kids, so it’s that change in behaviour to say: it’s important to recycle, the environment is important.
But that can only work if we have proper waste management systems in place. A lot of people want to recycle, they want to be responsible, but the skip outside their house might be overflowing or it doesn’t exist at all; so on different levels there are different initiatives we need to do.  We need a national campaign, our political leaders to do cleanups and get involved. This is important, this is our future.
What is the monetary value of the plastics recycling market?
It’s a percentage of the virgin material, so there’s definitely an economic value.

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