The future of plastic waste management in South Africa

Green plastic waste management bin

South Africa has a strong and resilient plastics recycling industry. Issues of waste collection and plastic recycling rates are hot topics at the moment – evoking emotional responses from various sectors of society. The fact is that a normal life would not be possible without plastics but the responsible and ethical disposal of these products is an issue in most countries around the world.

The future of plastic waste management lies in environmental protection, citizen education and participation from all sectors of society. Plastics are far too valuable to simply throw away. They need to be reused, recycled and fed back into a circular economy. This will ensure that the value of plastics is retained and sustainable economic growth can be unlocked.

“Recyclables are a valuable resource and should be removed from the solid waste stream before reaching landfill,” says Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom. “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,” he explains.

The following steps will pave the way for the future of plastic waste management in South Africa:

1. Develop waste management infrastructure

Plastics need to be collected and removed from the environment. The existing waste collection infrastructure needs to be improved in order to boost recycling collection, sorting and processing. Plastics need to be separated from non-recyclables at the source – in the homes of citizens, at restaurants, stores, hotels and businesses. Almost 34% of South Africans do not have access to any waste management services, so they need to be better equipped to deal with their waste.

2. Reduce contaminants in the recyclable waste stream

Just separating plastics from non-recyclable waste is not good enough. Often, these plastics are contaminated with food scraps and beverage remnants. This can affect the quality of a batch of recycling. A collaborative effort is required to minimise the contaminants in the incoming waste stream. Citizens can rinse their plastic waste with water – even non-potable greywater will do. Restaurant owners, baristas and retailers can start to improve the cleanliness of their recyclable waste too by rinsing the plastics.

3. Help recyclers sustain their operations

South Africa has around 300 recycling businesses. No matter their size, it is an ongoing struggle for recyclers to keep their businesses profitable with the rising costs of electricity, transport and labour. Many new entrants in the recycling industry are also not legally-compliant, which puts an unnecessary burden on the rest of recyclers. South Africans can support their local recyclers by dropping off their recyclable waste at these facilities instead of leaving it up to their waste management providers – many of which send the waste straight to landfill.

4. Develop alternatives for hard-to-recycle plastics

There are certain types of plastic that are difficult to recycle or are not economically viable to process. Alternative solutions need to be developed by manufacturers and recyclers for these plastics, such as turning them into cement aggregate for building blocks. Alternative methods of plastics waste disposal may also lie in chemical recycling and using waste to create electricity. Manufacturers can also work on making these types of plastic easier to process and more cost-effective to recycle.

The future of effective plastic waste management lies in collaboration between citizens, legislators, waste management companies, the government and plastics manufacturers. While Plastics SA works towards long-term solutions to plastic pollution, infrastructure needs to be improved, educational awareness needs to be implemented and responsible waste disposal needs to be enforced. 

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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