Growth in South African plastics recycling sector

Arrows representing growth in South African recycling sector

The latest South African recycling statistics have been verified and released by Plastics SA. They show clear growth and improvement across the recycling sector on a year-on-year basis. In total, South Africa recycled 519 400 tonnes of plastic waste during 2018, representing a 46.3% recycling rate and making the country a world leader in mechanical recycling.

Of this volume, 70% was recovered from the landfill waste stream by formal and informal waste collectors. This saved South Africa 246 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions that would have escaped into the atmosphere had this plastic waste been left to sit in a landfill. The country’s recycling sector is continuously growing and improving.

Difficult operating environment for recyclers

Despite the growth of the sector, 2018 was a tough year and presented many challenges to recyclers. The South African economy only realised a 0.8% growth rate – one of the worst-performing economies in sub-Saharan Africa. This affected all industries, including the recycling and plastics sectors, which still managed to stay afloat and improve from the previous year.

“With this economic backdrop, the last financial year was an extremely difficult period for established recyclers that had to navigate numerous challenges, including tough drought conditions, a steep hike in electricity prices, power outages, shifts in the regulatory environment (with waste licenses coming under the spotlight), problems with supply, competition in a saturated market, higher operational costs and crippling wage negotiations and strike action,” says Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom.

“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 as convincing most of the retailers to move their carrier bags from virgin to 100% PCR content after months of lobbying, and at the same time also improving the recyclability of the bags by reducing the filler content,” Hanekom explains.

Growth in local plastics recycling

South Africa has always had a strong waste management industry that is able to cope with the country’s output of waste. Many developed countries around the world used to export their waste to Asian countries, however, China started a trend by banning these waste imports. This forced Western countries to find alternative solutions to dealing with their own waste.

South Africa was not affected by this ban. Our waste has always been locally recycled into raw materials and new products. As a result, European recycling rates are 15% lower than that of South Africa, despite us only having formal waste management services for 64% of households. 

The plastics recycling industry provided almost 58 500 income opportunities for South Africans during 2018. Of these, 7892 were formal jobs and the rest were informal collectors that earn money by sourcing and collecting recyclable waste from landfills. Through these jobs, R2.27-billion was injected into the South African economy.

Growth in end-markets for recycled plastics

In previous years, the end-markets for recycled plastics were struggling. The demand for recyclate outweighed the supply of waste. However, South Africans have become increasingly aware of the importance of recycling and sustainable waste disposal practices. This means that more recyclate has been made available through the country’s recycling efforts.

More and more brands are also starting to incorporate recycled content in their products, such as plastic shopping bags and beverage bottles. These ever-increasing end-markets are vital for the sustainability of the recycling sector and the preservation of the environment. The majority of these markets are local – only 5.6% of our recycled raw material was exported to plastics manufacturers in neighbouring countries.

The demand for recycled waste has increased. The buying prices of these materials has grown by 15% since the previous year. More recyclers are being established and more businesses are being formed to supply recyclate to local and foreign industries. 

Over 67 000 tonnes of plastics recyclate was sold to the flexible packaging industry in 2018. The clothing and footwear industry purchased over 50 000 tonnes of recycled plastics. Agriculture, construction, rigid packaging and furniture are other popular end-markets for plastic recyclate.

These statistics prove that plastic is a valuable material that can provide economic benefits, even once it has been disposed of. South Africa and its citizens can be proud of their recycling efforts and the continued improvement in sustainable waste management practices.

“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,” concludes Hanekom.

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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