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Plastic recycling: South Africa versus Europe

South Africa’s latest recycling statistics have been released and the country is doing well. We have some of the highest plastic recycling rates in the world. The industry provides income opportunities for just under 60 000 South Africans, many of which are informal collectors and recyclers.

How does the local recycling sector fare against other countries? South Africa’s mechanical plastic recycling statistics show that we are better off than Europe. In 2018, South Africa achieved a 46.3% input plastics recycling rate by converting 352 000 tonnes of plastic refuse into raw materials. In the same year, Europe managed a 31.1% plastics recycling rate. South Africa recycles 15.2% more of its post-consumer plastic waste than Europe.

This trend has been visible over the past decade. In 2017, the domestic plastic consumption in Europe was 51.2 million tonnes. Of this volume, 27.1 million tonnes were post-consumer plastic waste that was collected for recycling. This represented an 11% increase over the past 10 years. Over the same period of time, South Africa has grown its recycling tonnages by 64%.

Since 2015, South Africa started to report on input figures to align with international reporting methods. This has allowed Plastics SA to more accurately compare the statistics of South African recycling to those of the rest of the world. The statistics above are all for input recycling rates.

Different views on recycling

South Africa and Europe have differing views and philosophies when it comes to recycling. The South African recycling industry is based on economic principles, whereas in Europe, recycling is based on environmental principles. We recycle because it is a valuable industry that creates jobs and supports tens of thousands of families. Europeans recycle because it is good for the environment.

In South Africa, recycling needs to be a profitable venture for it to be viable; in Europe, it is the right thing to do for the planet. Only 64% of households in South Africa have access to formal waste management services. There are no landfill restrictions on recyclable waste. Europe regulates and restricts certain recyclables from entering landfills.

Despite these differences, South Africa still manages to recycle a larger proportion of its plastic waste than Europe does. Besides PET recyclers, South African facilities manually sort the waste by hand. European facilities use infrared spectrometers to sort their recyclables from non-recyclable waste. This means that South Africa can recycle certain products that Europe cannot, such as black plastics and thin packaging films.

South Africa’s plastics recycling rates have shown rapid and continuous improvement over the past decade. We have become a world-leader in mechanical plastics recycling. As the volumes of waste grow every year, so too will the volume of recyclable refuse. This means that the plastics recycling industry will go from strength to strength.

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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.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Citizens can help to improve recycling rates

South Africa boasts some impressive recycling statistics. The country currently recycles more plastic than Europe. In 2018 alone, South Africa converted 352 000 tonnes of plastic waste into valuable raw material – about 67% of all plastic refuse. However, despite being a world-leader in mechanical plastic recycling, there is always room for improvement.

The plastics industry and waste management providers are working hard to ensure that all plastic waste is recycled. Consumers and South African citizens can help us reach our goal of a 70% plastics recycling rate in the next few years. By implementing recycling in the home, citizens can ensure that plastic waste is sent to the recycling facility instead of the landfill.

Recycling in the home will boost recycling rates

By implementing separation at source strategies in the home, more plastic waste will be sent to recycling facilities. Citizens should start to separate their plastic waste from non-recyclables and organic refuse at home. All waste placed in general garbage bins will be sent to a landfill. While some of the recyclable waste is collected and sorted at landfills, a lot of it remains in these facilities.

In addition, consumers should aim to rinse their plastic waste before placing it in the recycling bin. The water used for washing dishes can be used for this – not clean water – as water is also a scarce resource that we should be using sparingly. This will wash away any food and drink remnants that could contaminate the recycling batch. “Basic actions like rinsing, or, in water-scarce areas wiping out a food container before placing it in a bag, reduces contamination,” says Mpact general manager Nicholas Schild.

Cleaner plastics entering the recycling stream will result in a higher-quality recyclate at the end of the process. This means that products made from recycled plastic will be more durable, better quality and more cost-effective to process. “Consumer choice can add to the momentum of recycling and environment-conscious manufacturing practices,” says Schild. 

South African government calls for citizens to help

The South African government has already implemented two mechanisms in order to encourage citizens to reduce litter – the Plastic Bag Regulations and a plastic bag levy. However, these attempts have not curbed the prevalence of illegal dumping and littering.

“There are a whole range of areas where we need to see a behaviour change from our citizens. Single-use plastics are just one example,” says Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy. “The department is currently assessing single-use plastic products—plastic carrier bags, straws, earbuds, crockery and cutlery – and we will be conducting various stakeholder engagements in this regard,” she adds.

“With the proper coordination and consumer action, voluntary change can be a sustainable and cost-effective solution,” says Creecy. The South African plastics industry is looking at innovative ways to encourage citizens to recycle. Plastics are valuable products that make modern life easier and more affordable. Recycling plastics is currently a better solution than banning them, so we urge all South Africans to dispose of their plastic waste in a responsible manner.

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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.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.