Plastics and their role in creating a circular economy

Plastic bottles and circular economy logo

A circular economy is a new way of looking at product life cycles and how we consume raw materials. The linear model of consumption that we have used for centuries (take, make, use, dispose) is not sustainable. It requires us to use valuable raw materials and natural resources, which has negative effects on the planet and the climate.

A circular economy stems around the idea that we can feed waste back into the supply chain – essentially reusing and recycling our refuse to create valuable products that can be resold. This reduce, reuse, recycle model of consumption is far more sustainable and better suited to products like plastic and recyclable materials.

As society becomes more aware of its impact on the planet, people are finding more innovative ways to reuse their waste and retain its value, rather than letting it sit in a landfill. Plastics are a prime example of valuable recyclable materials that often get dumped in waste management facilities.

Society needs to embrace circular economy

A circular economy will only work if there is input from all sectors of society. The government needs to work alongside businesses, communities and individuals. Every South African will need to embrace recycling and actively participate in sustainable waste disposal practices in order for a circular economy to thrive.

The country currently has some of the highest recycling rates in the world, which is a brilliant start. Plastic recycling rates are improving year-on-year, but there is always room for improvement. Plastics are a valuable material and should be reused as much as possible. Even single-use plastic products can be reused in the home for a variety of purposes.

Public education and raising awareness of the importance of recycling is just one step to improving recycling rates. The plastics industry is also playing its part by working to improve the recyclability of its products.

The future of plastics is more sustainable

While most plastics are recyclable, they cannot be recirculated infinitely. After being recycled a number of times, the plastics start to become brittle. Plastics manufacturers are working towards making their products more sustainable and recyclable. 

The industry is also researching alternative ways to make plastics, such as creating products from plant-based polymers. This will allow the plastics to break down and decompose if left in the environment. The future of the plastics industry revolves around sustainability and the circularity of the products’ life cycles.

Another factor that influences the recyclability of plastic is its colour. Black plastic can be difficult to recycle because the infrared scanning sensors at recycling facilities cannot detect the black pigment. Luckily, many of South Africa’s recycling centres use manual labour to sort plastic waste so the black plastic is not a major problem.

Recycling facilities can be upgraded

Although plastics are perfectly suited to a circular economy, the recycling infrastructure in South Africa will also need to be upgraded if this system is to become a reality. Our waste management facilities will play a vital role in turning plastic waste into high-quality, reusable products that can be fed back into the supply chain.

The national government can support these facilities and invest in the upgrades in order to establish a circular economy in South Africa. This will not only help recyclers to increase their handling capacities but will also allow them to improve the quality of their output products. Private companies can also help to provide funding for the support of our recycling network.

A circular economy is not a farfetched idea, nor is it unattainable. By embracing recycling, improving the recyclability of plastic products and investing in waste management facilities, South Africa could benefit from a sustainable economy. By reusing plastic waste and turning it into sellable products, the country could benefit from a cleaner environment and retain the value of plastic at the same time.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

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Plastics SA Editor