No straw‚ now what? Recycling plastic in SA on World Environment Day

05 June 2018 - 14:09 By Wendy Knowler
Most of the plastic bottles currently being recycled in South Africa are picked off landfills.
Most of the plastic bottles currently being recycled in South Africa are picked off landfills.
Image: Petco

Shunning a plastic straw is a noble contribution to global efforts to arrest mankind’s single-use plastic habit‚ but are you still buying supermarket plastic bags every time you shop?

Are you separating your plastic and making sure it gets into a recycling stream‚ and do you boycott products packaged in plastic which can’t be recycled or won’t be because there’s no market for it?

We aren’t doing enough to promote the circular economy and the use of recyclate in new products.

“Everyone is getting emotional about all the plastic in our oceans‚ as we should‚ but most of us have blood on our hands in terms of the poor choices we make as consumers‚” says Chandru Wadhwani‚ joint MD of major plastics recycling company Extrupet.

“Product packaging should be designed with its after-life as a priority‚ but unfortunately many brand owners don’t think beyond marketing and cost."

The ideal PET (the plastic of beverage bottles) is clear‚ Wadhwani says. That creates the highest quality‚ most sought-after resin post-recycling. So green‚ brown‚ red and mostly those fluorescent bottles are bad news for recycling‚ creating low-value resin for which there is little to no market‚ with the result that those bottles are often shunned by small collectors.

Bottled water companies are often guilty of not designing for recycling‚ Wadhwani says.

“They’ll use a clear bottle‚ which can be recycled‚ but then instead of applying a label‚ they’ll print directly onto the bottle - that ink purges during recycling and the resultant resin can’t be used to make another bottle.”

Plastic packs with labels shrink-wrapped onto them are also extremely recycling unfriendly.

Happily‚ there have been some recent wins.

According to recycling agencies, South Africa is one of the world leaders when it comes to recycling plastics. The reason for this is largely thanks to waste pickers on the ground making money from recycling trash. Still, the Western Cape says it’s running out of landfill space and something needs to be done to help solve the problem.

“Both Sprite Zero and Schweppes Tonic Water used to be in a green bottle‚ and are now in a clear ones‚” Wadhwani says.

Getting consumers to appreciate the fact that PET beverage bottles are not trash and should never end up in a landfill is a major challenge for Petco‚ South Africa’s PET recycling company.

But that’s exactly where most of the plastic bottles being recycled in this country come from.

Petco uses a voluntary fee paid annually by members - among them Coca Cola‚ Nampak Liquid‚ Woolworths‚ Pick n Pay and Astrapak - on every ton of raw material they buy‚ to enable its contracted recyclers to pay collectors for bales of bottles.

And that’s how a record 65% of post-consumer bottles were recycled last year‚ up from 55% in 2016‚ to put the country on par with international standards‚ and streaks ahead of many companies. The USA for example only recycles around 30% of its used PET bottles.

“For Petco and its partners to have grown collections during this tough time is truly remarkable‚” says CEO Cheri Scholz in the company’s June newsletter.

Consumer myths about recycled plastic don’t help the recycling cause‚ says Anton Hanekom‚ executive director of plastics industry body Plastics SA.

Many consumers are hesitant to accept recycled products or products containing recycled material‚ he says‚ because they don’t like the idea of second-hand plastic which came from a landfill.

“They are exposed to the black refuse bags and know that they are made from or contain recycled material – they are a bit smelly and have tiny bumps‚ so the perception is that all recycled products will be the same.”

That may explain why many brand owners don’t declare on their packs that fact that the packaging contains recycled material‚ Hanekom says. “They’re worried that this will negatively affect consumers’ purchase choice.”

The Organics 1-litre shampoo bottle is a case in point. It contains 50% recycled plastic.

“We aren’t doing enough to promote the circular economy and the use of recyclate in new products‚” Hanekom says.

Consumers may not even be aware that many of the products they use contain recycled material‚ such as irrigation pipes‚ waterproofing sheets‚ roofing sheets‚ duvet inners.

“The challenge is to increase the use of recycled material in everyday use - such as the Addis watering can that’s made from 100% recycled material: it looks good‚ it's fit for purpose and safe to use.”

A methane extracting gas project runs at the Coastal Park Landfill in Muizenberg. The landfill facilitates the disposal of general waste which cannot be re-used or recycled. According to the Kyoto Protocol this project is the first step in getting carbon credits - and an income - for the city of Cape Town. Image credits: Natalie Sternberg