The state of South African recycling companies

Lego man representing recycling companies

South Africa has a very strong recycling industry. We are a world-leader when it comes to mechanical plastic recycling. Almost 520 000 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled in 2018 alone – that doesn’t include other recyclables such as metals, glass and paper. These high volumes of plastic recycling enable 58 470 South Africans to earn an income.

There is a minimum of 300 recycling companies in South Africa, varying from small enterprises to large-scale facilities. One-fifth of these recyclers converted 70% of the total plastic waste in 2018. The top 30 recyclers in South Africa currently process 54% of the country’s plastic waste.

Just over one-quarter of all recyclers have been around for three years or less and one quarter have been around for 20 years or more. The three most experienced recycling companies in South Africa have a total of 135 years between them.

How the South African provinces compare for recycling

Of these top 30 recycling facilities, 17 are located in Gauteng, six in the Western Cape, five in KwaZulu-Natal and one each in the Eastern Cape and Northwest. Gauteng has half of all recycling companies in South Africa. They handle 58% of the country’s recyclate. It is the province with the largest number of new entrants to the recycling industry and the greatest number of small-scale subsistence recycling operations.

Many of these small-scale recyclers around the country are dependent on clean, pre-consumer recyclables. These are plastic waste items that have not been used or purchased yet; offcuts from manufacturing processes and factory rejects. Even established recyclers have started to reduce their intake of contaminated post-consumer waste in order to reduce their operational costs.

New recycling companies emerging

An interesting trend emerged in 2018 – the four leading provinces (Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Northwest) recycled more tonnages in 2018 than in previous years, but the rest of the provinces actually recycled less. However, the tonnes per recycler has decreased across all provinces – 4.3% less, on average. This is due to new entrants and a growing business sector in the recycling industry.

There are new opportunities for recyclers in all provinces. Waste volumes are increasing, yet Gauteng currently handles much of the refuse from other provinces. The main challenge for new entrants in other provinces is to establish their own collection networks. Recyclers depend on collectors and waste management companies for their incoming recyclables. New entrants in the smaller provinces will need to establish these networks as there are currently no substantial collection systems.

This means working closely with local communities and municipalities in order to ensure that there is a mutual benefit for all parties involved. This takes time and capital investment, which new entrants may not have. Localised recycling solutions will benefit the government and the taxpayer. It is important to set up small-scale recycling ventures in more remote regions of South Africa.

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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