The latest plastics recycling figures released by industry body Plastics South Africa (Plastics SA) indicate that South Africans are recycling more plastics than before, which bodes well for local environmental sustainability.
The results of the company’s yearly survey – discussed at Plastics SA’s annual general meeting held in November last year – indicate that there is a growing awareness of recycling and public pressure to recycle, resulting in more post-consumer and -industrial plastics being made available for reuse.
“In 2016, 1.14-million tons of recyclable plastic entered the waste stream, of which 41.8% was recycled in South Africa, based on input tonnages. This is a year-on-year increase of 5.9%,” states Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom.
He adds that a growing number of organisations and consumer groups are becoming actively involved in upstream collection efforts, resulting in a positive impact on the amount of plastics collected and recycled. Recycled tonnages increased by 35% since 2011.
“This growth is not as a result of increased plastic products that entered the market. In fact, 1.5-million tons of virgin polymer was converted into products in South Africa during 2016 – a 1.9% increase, compared with that of 2015 when 1.49-million tons was converted,” says South African Plastics Recycling Organisation plastics consultant Annabe Pretorius.
Hanekom laments that plastics manufacturing and recycling industries worldwide have been taking strain over the past two years and that more end-markets need to be developed as a matter of urgency to ensure the take-off for recycled materials.
“Towards the end of 2016, South Africa had 204 active recyclers who mechanically reprocessed plastic materials such as plastic packaging. Among them, they provided formal, permanent employment for 6 140 staff and supported the informal employment of 51 500 waste pickers and collectors.”
Pretorius adds that, for the first time in many years, recyclers had an oversupply of recyclate in 2016. She says it is clear that the survival of the recycling industry depends on creating more demand for recycled materials to prevent bottlenecks and stock not being moved from factory floors.
The largest market (comprising 20%) for recyclate is flexible packaging in the form of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) sold to refuse and carrier bag manufacturers, followed by the market for clothing and footwear (comprising 18%), where post-consumer recycled plastic is turned into fibre applications and flexible polyvinyl chloride for shoe soles.
Further, recycled rigid packaging constitutes 15% of the market, where plastics are recycled into items, such as drums and buckets, from recycled high-density polyethylene and polypropylene (PP) for thermoformed sheet applications. LDPE used for irrigation pipes in the agriculture sector comprises 5%, while furniture constitutes 5%, where PP recyclate is used for injection-moulded chairs and tables.
Moreover, Hanekom explains that South Africa currently uses only mechanical recycling, as no other commercial facilities currently exist for alternative plastics recycling. Compared with Europe’s mechanical recycling rate of 29.7%, South Africa can be proud of its 41.8% recycling rate for all plastics, he adds.
However, he says South Africa cannot afford to rest on its laurels, as brand owners and international organisations are under increasing pressure to meet their sustainability targets, with plastics recycling forming an integral part of the circular economy of the industry.
Pretorius highlights that the driving forces behind the increased recycle rates include separation at source initiatives, as recyclable waste needs to be made available to the recycling value chain as early as possible in its life cycle.
Consumers are encouraged to remove labels on recyclable containers, but local government and nonprofit organisations need to make it as effortless as possible for consumers to dispose of recyclables in an acceptable format to collectors and waste management companies, she explains.
Additionally, packaging must be designed for recycling. In a country, such as South Africa, where there is a vibrant mechanical recycling industry, recyclability must form part of the brand owner product design checklist.
Pretorius points out that closer cooperation among role-players is also necessary. “Waste producers, recyclers and brand owners need to work closer together with regard to understanding which packaging can be recycled, how to meet the needs and demands of brand owners and getting all the parties concerned to commit to a circular economy.”
Greater awareness of recycling can also be established through education, as better knowledge and improved understanding are required regarding which products can be recycled, how the collection and recycling process works and the end-products that can be generated, she adds.
Moreover, Hanekom mentions that plastics recycling offers sustainable solutions for plastics waste.
“While we are working to satisfy the legislative requirements and zero-waste ambitions aimed at reducing our carbon footprint, we also need to invest in development and innovation if we are to have plastics manufacturing and recycling industries that are sound and robust.”
Pretorius notes that other factors may also influence the recycling rate, such as the design of products not being amenable to recycling simply because its function makes recycling a challenge or impossible.
For example, sweets wrappers preserve small sweets, but it is impossible for waste pickers to focus on picking up thousands of sweets wrappers, no matter how recyclable the material is. The process also has cost implications because it will take longer to gather these waste products.
Further, products, such as refill sachets and replacement packs for various products, such as dishwashing liquid, are not recycled, but are designed for optimal transport, storage and consumer-preference benefits.
Although additives make the product more cost effective to manufacture, as it uses less raw material, Pretorius states that using additives in plastics during manufacturing also impact on recycling rates, as these additives can often not be recycled.
She concludes that, with a circular economy in the recycling industry, it is necessary to consider what the consumer, government, the recycling companies and waste management companies want – finding a happy medium is, thus, key.