So you think those fruit trays are being recycled?
No they are not. But keep putting them aside for recycling with your other plastic. Good news is coming
Do you know why plastic straws are such a danger to the environment? Not because they aren’t recyclable, as many believe. They are. All straws that are collected and end up in a recycling plant will be recycled with other bits of used plastic. The challenge, says the SA Plastics Recycling Organisation’s Annabe Pretorius, “is that no waste picker bends down and picks up a straw, as he or she needs to do it 3,000 times to get 1kg of plastic, which he can sell for R2”.
The army of waste pickers who make a living from picking up our recyclable trash and getting it to recycling plants get paid per kilogram, so the weight of what they’re collecting is as paramount to them as whether or not a particular form of plastic is currently being recycled or not.
An item may be technically recyclable, but if it’s not currently being recycled in this country, it will end up in the landfill. And that’s exactly what’s happening to the hundreds of thousands of those plastic food containers - referred to by the industry as thermoforms - which so many consumers routinely rinse and separate from their refuse bag trash, and add to their collection of recyclable milk and water bottles. Understandably so. They are made from PET – polyethylene terephthalate – the same form of plastic from which plastic bottles are made. PET is plastic recycling’s poster child: a record 2.15 billion PET bottles were recycled last year, according to PETCO (the PET Recycling Company).
That’s a recycle rate of 65%; one of the best in the world.
It’s a win all round – thousands of jobs are created; the used plastic bottles are turned into fibre-fill for duvets and pillows, fruit trays, car carpets, insulation and even brand new bottles; a massive amount of scarce landfill space is spared; and plastic pollution is dramatically reduced.
I recently received an e-mail from a Cape Town woman I’ll call Beth, since she asked to remain anonymous, saying that she’d recently discovered that the PET thermoforms she’d been sending for recycling were being diverted to a landfill instead.
“At the Kraaifontein Recovery Facility, where all Cape Town’s garden waste and recycling gets processed, I was told that no PET punnets used for strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, herbs, etc, are being recycled anywhere in South Africa, only bottles,” said Beth.
“They just process them into smaller pieces and then sent them to the Vissershok landfill. Are we misled into believing that all PET containers are recycled, based on the PET bottle success stories punted on the websites of PETCO and recycling company ExtruPet – when in fact, the truth is far from that?
“How about the major supermarkets – do they even understand the facts about the waste stream of the packaging they use?
“In an environment where we say no to straws and plastic bags, why do we accept these ever-present single-use containers which aren’t being recycled?”
Good question. I must admit, noting that those thermoforms are marked with the number 1, for PET, I’d been putting them in with my other plastics for recycling as well. So why aren’t they being recycled? A few reasons:
Because they are transported in “nests”, a silicone is added to the PET to make it easy so separate them, and that silicone would contaminate a batch of pure PET.
There’s no point recycling something if there isn’t an established market for it, and until now, there hasn’t been one for recycled thermoforms.
They provide a lot of rigidity, and thus food protection, for such thin, light containers, but being lightweight they aren’t very appealing to collectors: lots of work for little reward at the scale, just like those straws.
But here’s the good news: earlier this year, in response to a challenge by Woolworths, major plastics recycler Extrupet, along with PETCO, began to look for way to recycle those thin trays, and for an end product for the recyclate. The company has come up with a polyester fibre which will have “several end use applications”, said Extrupet joint MD Chadru Wadhwani.
“We have an undertaking from Woolworths that we can look at the relabelling of their punnets – and other producers hopefully – so as to easily distinguish them from the other punnets in the market which are contaminants to the main waste stream of good PET punnets,” he said.
And Extrupet and PETCO are also looking at ways to incentivise collectors to pick them up.
“The plan is to start recycling PET punnets next year – in the meantime we need to bring in specialised machinery to enable us to handle this unique packaging form,” Wadhwani said.
WHAT TO DO..