The latest plastics recycling figures released by Plastics|SA reveal that South Africans are recycling more plastics than ever before.
The results of Plastics|SA’s annual survey into plastics recycling for the period ending December 2016, reveal that there is a growing awareness of recycling and public pressure to recycle – resulting in more post-consumer and post-industrial plastics being made available for reuse.
Growing public pressure to recycle bears fruit
Last year, 1.144 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%. During this period, a growing number of organisations and consumer groups became actively involved in upstream collection efforts, resulting in a positive impact on the amount of plastics that were collected and recycled.
Recycled tonnages have grown by 35 % since 2011.
Plastics industry takes strain
The increase in recycling that was recorded was not as a result of increased plastic products that entered the market. In fact, 1.518 million tons of virgin polymer was converted into products in South Africa during this period – a mere 1.9 % increase compared to 2015.
Plastics manufacturing and recycling industries in South Africa and around the world have been taking strain over the past two years and more end-markets needed to be developed as a matter of urgency to ensure take-off for recycled materials.
Towards the end of 2016, South Africa had 204 active recyclers who mechanically reprocessed plastics materials such as plastic packaging. Between them, they provided formal, permanent employment to 6 140 staff and supported the informal employment of 51 500 waste pickers and collectors. For the first time in many years, recyclers had an oversupply of recyclate in 2016. It is clear that the survival of the industry depends on creating more demand for recycled materials in order to prevent bottle-necks and stock that does not move off their factory floors.
Markets for recycled plastics
- The largest market (20%) for recyclate was for flexible packaging (20%) with PE-LD/LLD and PE-HD sold to refuse and carrier bag manufacturers.
- Following closely in second position (18%) was the market for clothing and footwear where products such as rPET were turned into fibre applications and flexible PVC for shoe soles and gumboots.
- Recycled rigid packaging made up 15% of the market, where plastics were recycled into items such as drums and buckets made from recycled PE-HD and PP as well as rPET for thermoformed sheet applications.
- PE-LD/LLD recyclate was used for irrigation pipes for the agricultural sector (5%) and the furniture sector (5%) make use of PP for injection moulded chairs and tables and PS for picture frames.
Developing the export markets
Whilst weak domestic currency favours the exportation of plastics, only 5% of South Africa’s plastic recyclate was exported. SAPRO is currently also investigating possible cooperation with virgin raw material traders who have a footprint in other African countries and elsewhere in the world, as developing this market would be beneficial to both the recycling industry and the virgin traders,” according to Rudi Johannes from SAPRO.
The way forward
South Africa currently only makes use of mechanical recycling, as no other commercial facilities currently exist for alternative plastics recycling. Compared to Europe’s mechanical recycling rate of 29.7 %, South Africa can indeed be proud of its recycling rate of 41.8 % for all plastics.
“We cannot afford to rest on our laurels or ease up on our recycling efforts. Not only are brand owners and international organisations under increasing pressure to meet their sustainability targets, but plastics recycling also forms an integral part of the circular economy”, Hanekom says.
To this end, Plastics|SA has identified the following priorities that will continue to drive the industry’s recycling efforts:
- Separation at source is essential. Recyclable waste needs to be made available to the recycling value chain as close as possible to where it reaches its end of life. We must not be over demanding on the consumer. Local government and NGOs need to make it as effortless as possible for the householder to get rid of recyclables in the format that is acceptable to the collectors and waste management companies.
- One-way packaging must be designed for recycling. In a country where there is a vibrant mechanical recycling industry, recyclability must form part of the brand owner product design checklist.
- Closer cooperation between role players. Waste producers, recyclers and brand owners need to work closer 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 through education. 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 are generated.
According to Anton Hanekom, “Plastics recycling does, and will continue to offer sustainable solutions for plastics waste. Whilst we are working tirelessly 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. All the members of the plastics value chain must engage with each other and commit to a true circular economy where the need for sustainable business practices is not ignored.”