Though not all plastic is equal, all of it can be recycled in some way, reports Liezel de Lange.
South Africa is a step ahead of the Europeans when it comes to plastic recycling.
Last year, the recycling rate in South Africa was 46.3% for all plastic produced during the year, compared with a recycling rate of 31.1% in Europe, according to a report by Plastics SA.
The rate was even higher for used plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) at 63%, or 98 649 tons of PET plastic bottles.
PET forms the basis for synthetic fibres like polyester and is used in the packaging industry as the rigid plastic used for a wide range of food and non-food applications, such as beverage bottles, peanut butter jars and dishwashing liquid.
According to Cheri Scholtz, the CEO of plastic recycling company Petco, an average of 6.2 million PET bottles are collected daily for recycling across South Africa.
Petco aims to recycle 70% of PET bottles by 2022 and, to reach this goal, all role players need to be involved – from the packaging industry to every consumer in South Africa.
Anton Hanekom, the managing director of Plastics SA, says South Africa is a world leader when it comes to mechanical recycling. This is the process during which plastic is washed, melted and made into pellets, which are then used to produce new plastic products.
However, a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states that “not all recycling is considered equal”.
The report states that upcycling is when something is recycled into another product of equal or greater value than the original product – think of ornamental lighting and art made from plastic bottles.
According to the WWF, most plastic recycling is downcycling as the recycled plastic products are of lower value than the original product and can only be used in limited applications.
“The exception is recycled PET bottles, which can be used in clothing, carpets and other products using polyester fibre, while some PET bottles now contain a portion of recycled PET,” says the WWF.
Everyone needs to join forces to tackle the growing waste challenge, says Dr Casper Durandt, the chairperson of Petco and head of sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola in southern and east Africa.
“Producers should design packaging that is 100% recyclable by eliminating colour, PVC and multilayer packaging,” he says.
Clear bottles have the highest commercial value for recycling. Light blue bottles are also acceptable as they can be blended in with clear bottles, says Scholtz.
Green and brown bottles are also recycled, but have a more limited end-use market and therefore a much lower value than clear bottles. However, Petco has two contractors that recycle green bottles into the straps used to tie goods on to trucks and in warehouses.
Designers are encouraged to consider alternatives such as perforated sleeves if colour is necessary, says Scholtz.
Multilayer packaging is where a product is packaged in different materials such as paper, plastic and foil. Filter coffee, toothpaste, processed meats, cheese and sauces are examples of such products. These materials can only be recycled if the layers can be separated as it is expensive and difficult to recycle.
Hanekom also emphasises the key role consumers can play to make the recycling process cheaper and more effective.
In South Africa, the largest quantity of recyclables – 70% – was obtained from landfill sites and other post-consumer sources.
“Landfill material is of poor quality and contaminated, so it is expensive to recycle,” warns a report by Plastics SA.
Hanekom says: “In the European community, local government and the plastics industry are all involved in getting the recyclables out of the waste stream as early as possible. Let’s remove recyclables from the waste stream at home. As a first step, put it in a clear plastic bag on top of your dustbin so that reclaimers can remove it.
“If there are no reclaimers in your neighbourhood, the bag will land up in a landfill, where the reclaimers there can easily identify and remove the recyclables.”
Hanekom also suggests that consumers rinse plastic containers in which products such as meat or yogurt was packaged before putting it in the recycling bin.
Consumers can also drop off plastic, glass and paper at recycling points.
Plastic only becomes rubbish if it is sent to landfills and dump sites, or chucked on to the streets.
Many suburbs in metropolitan areas have scores of reclaimers who will remove your recyclable materials.
If you don’t have these guys removing your stuff, many churches, schools and shopping centres have recycle bins.
The recycling of PET bottles can be made easier by following the four C’s – consume (drink the contents), crush (crush the bottle), cap (put the cap back on) and classify (keep it separate from other waste).
Durandt says: “Of course, it’s tempting to romanticise a world without packaging – surely if we stopped producing, glass, tins and plastic bottles, people and the planet would be better off?
The recycling of plastic PET bottles is far more effective if you follow four easy steps:
1. Consume the product and make sure the bottle is empty.
2. Crush it so that reclaimers can collect more bottles.
3. Screw the lid back on so that dirt does not get into the bottle.
4. Separate waste at home so that recyclable materials can be easily identified.
“But this ignores some of the benefits of food and beverage containers – they help reduce food spoilage and waste, improve affordability of foodstuffs and flexibility of portions, as well as limit the spread of disease. We need to maintain these benefits while minimising the impact of waste.”
International research has shown that the correct packaging can lengthen the shelf life of beef by up to six days. A cucumber will stay fresh for two weeks instead of three days if it is packaged correctly.
According to Plastics Europe, the shelf life of fresh food can be lengthened threefold with the correct packaging.
And, after all, plastic is already with us and it can take up to 1 000 years to degrade. With effective recycling, its impact on our environment can be drastically reduced.
- This project is reported by City Press and sponsored by Coca-Cola Africa