Plastics SA releases latest recycling figures

Plastic bottles crushed for recycling

The latest South African recycling statistics have been released by Plastics SA. The results reveal that the country has a dynamic and well-supported recycling industry and that plastics recycling rates are steadily improving year-on-year. These statistics come from 2018 as the figures had to be tallied and verified before public release.

The recycling and plastics industries both faced difficulties during the course of 2018; from a struggling national economy and increased electricity tariffs to shifts in waste regulations and industry strike action. However, both industries managed to stay afloat and make important strides forward. 

“It is often said that one should not waste a good crisis, and this difficult period not only taught us valuable lessons, but also presented us with exciting opportunities, such convincing most of the retailers to move their carrier bags from virgin [plastic] to 100% PCR (post-consumer resin) content after months of lobbying, and at the same time also improving the recyclability of the bags by reducing the filler content,” says Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom.

Growth in plastics recycling

South Africa has always had high recycling rates, beating many developed countries. When China and other Asian countries banned the import of waste, many European countries battled to find alternative solutions to processing their waste. South Africa did not face this difficulty as the majority of our plastic waste is already collected and recycled locally.

As a result, South Africa processed 352 000 tonnes of plastic waste and turned it into raw material and recycled products – breaking the 350 000 tonne barrier for the first time ever. In total, the country collected 519 400 tonnes of plastics for recycling. South Africa recycled 46.3% of all plastic products in 2018, whereas Europe only recycled 31.1%, making us a world-leader in mechanical recycling. Plastics recycling also saved 246 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions; the equivalent to the greenhouse gases produced by 51 200 vehicles. 

Almost three-quarters of the plastic that was recycled in South Africa during 2018 was recovered from landfills and other post-consumer sources. The problem with this is that these plastics are often contaminated by food and other waste materials, which makes them more expensive to process.

The most widely-recycled plastic material in South Africa is low-density polyethylene (PE-LD and PE-LLD) packaging film. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles used for beverages are the second most-recycled plastic product, followed by high-density polyethylene (PE-HD) bottles, drums and crates. The recycling rates of polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics also showed a steady increase during 2018.

Recycling beneficial to the economy

The plastics recycling industry sustained over 7890 formal jobs during 2018. It is estimated that around 58 470 workers and waste pickers received an income through the entire recycling supply chain. This is 6000 more income-generating opportunities than in 2017. Through the procurement of recyclables, an estimated R2.3-billion was injected into the South African economy.

“Recyclables are a valuable resource and should be removed from the solid waste stream before reaching landfill.  All stakeholders, including producers, manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, waste management companies and recyclers – have to work together to make plastics the material of choice, to manufacture locally, process it efficiently and to manage the end-of-life products in the most efficient manner that will benefit the consumer, the industry and the planet,” says Hanekom.

South Africa continues to be a world leader in plastics recycling as we have a robust industry. However, there is always room for improvement. Littering and illegal dumping continue to be a nationwide epidemic, threatening the environment and human health. The country needs to work towards improving infrastructure and service delivery in the waste management sector.

This, along with further campaigns to educate the public about the importance of recycling and the dangers of littering, will help to boost recycling rates. 2018 was a year of growth for the recycling sector. The steady improvement is a positive sign for the future of South Africa’s waste management and plastics industries.

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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