High rates of urbanisation and steady economic growth means waste generation is an ever-increasing issue across sub-Saharan Africa.
Like many other countries in the region, South Africa is under pressure to develop and create the right waste management infrastructure, policies and response to the problem. Everyone needs to come together to help solve it – government, the private sector and civil society.
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? 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 striving to continually minimise the impact of waste.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly known as the plastic from which most beverage bottles are made, has captured the headlines. Although it is estimated that PET bottles account for less than 18% of plastic waste leaking into the ocean and the environment, they are a very visible part of the issue for consumers and stakeholders, according to a 2015 report Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean.
Because it is lightweight, tough, transparent and waterproof, PET has advantages over other packaging materials such as glass (heavier to transport) and tins (more energy intensive to produce). According to the British Plastics Federation, studies have also shown that if plastic packaging had to be replaced by other materials, it would lead to 2.7 times more greenhouse emissions over their lifetime compared with other materials.
Certainly though, more can be done to reduce packaging waste globally. Beverage companies also have to consider new strategies of operating if the packaging problem is to be dealt with sustainably.
Addressing the proliferation of waste in our environment requires a three-pronged approach – designing of more recycling-friendly packaging; improving collection rates; and partnering with other organisations, communities and governments to ensure infrastructure is established, appropriate policies developed and attitudes towards littering and recycling changed.
Coca-Cola’s new packaging vision for a world without waste, fundamentally reshapes the company’s approach to packaging, with a global goal to help collect and recycle the equivalent of 100% of its packaging by 2030.
The first technical aspect being addressed is minimising waste through design – whether it’s using more recycled material in beverage bottles; ensuring that they are 100% recyclable; reducing the amount of plastic in each container (light-weighting); developing plant-based resins; or experimenting with ways to eliminated packaging altogether – the goal is to set a new global standard for beverage packaging.
Other examples include intelligent design such as Coca-Cola’s Eco-Twist bottle, which can be compressed easily to take up less space in the recycle bin and developing a new cap and protective coating for Coca-Cola’s Tiny But Mighty bottle in India to preserve carbonation during transit and extend shelf life. These are some of the ways scientists and packaging buyers are working with innovation labs, environmental experts and mainstream suppliers to develop new, modern packaging that make products more sustainable. These innovations aim to set a new global standard for beverage packaging.
Coca-Cola has also reduced dependence on fossil fuels by introducing the PlantBottle packaging in 2012 in South Africa. It is the first fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made with up to 30% plant-based materials. The goal is to increase the use of sustainable plant-sourced material in our packaging over time.
Refillable packages of all kinds may play a role in offering packaging choice in many markets. These will be evaluated alongside other ways to bring more sustainable choices to the marketplace for consumers.
Improving collection rates is a more complex issue. It requires partnerships with municipalities and suppliers, as well as educating consumers about recycling. Improving the recovery and recycling rates of all packaging requires the collective will and collaboration of everyone – including consumers, government and private sector. Beverage companies need to work closely with bottling partners, local and national authorities, and recycling partners to improve the collection and local recycling rates of cans, plastics and glass bottles.
In 2004, Coca-Cola South Africa funded and co-created the PET Recycling Company (Petco), an industry body that works with government on the behalf of the industry to increase the value of recyclable PET and achieve sustainable growth in the region’s plastic collection system. The partnership has helped build a sustainable recycling industry in the region.
Two world class bottle-to-bottle recycling facilities at Extrupet and MPact, create recycled PET for use in the beverage industry. This has resulted in 45,000 tonnes of PET bottles being diverted from landfills in South Africa each year for reuse in the beverage industry. An estimated 288,000m³ of landfill space has been saved and more than 1,500 new income opportunities have been created through these two investments.
On the ground, there is real progress. As a result of Petco’s efforts, more than two billion PET bottles were collected and recycled in South Africa in 2017 – equating to 5.9 million bottles recycled a day. This injected R966 million into the South African economy through the manufacture of recycled end-use products and helped generate income opportunities for 64 000 South Africans.
The country has seen an increase in recycling rates from single digits in 2000 to 65% in 2017 – rates close to European rates and that exceed United States recycling rates by more than 20%. Against these achievements, aiming for the collection and recycling of the equivalent of 100% of our packaging over the next 12 years seems realistic.
Unlike in developed markets, the recycling industry in Africa is primarily informal and transforming the industry into a more formalised one, while encouraging entrepreneurship and job creation is crucial to increasing collection and recycling rates. This model should be centred on economic inclusion – improving the jobs and conditions that micro-collectors work in – actively moving the collectors up the value chain into more decent work rather than more and more people collecting from landfills and from bins.
To achieve this the private sector needs to work with government to find equitable solutions without unintended consequences. Successful recycling models, such as independent cooperatives that have successfully operated in Brazil, provide a roadmap not only for higher collection rates, but also economic empowerment.
Petco encourages a fairer position for micro-collectors, including ownership to allow for more equitable distribution of profits. Petco also provides training and enterprise development for small, medium and micro-sized enterprises and cooperatives in the recycling industry.
There remains an important gap in the area of collection and that is improving recycling rates among households and residential areas. Education and awareness about littering and recycling remains an important element in improving collection rates.
For example, in the UK a joint research partnership between Coca-Cola, its bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises and anti-litter charity Keep Britain Tidy found young people have different definitions of what litter means. Putting cigarettes down the drain or leaving an empty can on a bench rather than on the ground was not seen as littering. Young people also think it’s less acceptable to litter plastic bottles, compared with cans and glass bottles, because they’re resealable and can be disposed of later. Education and raising awareness of what constitutes litter through short-term campaigns can make a positive difference and inspire people to value and care more for the environment.
In South Africa, Coca-Cola’s School Recycling Programme has been particularly successful, with 597 schools in South Africa committed to collecting at least 1000kg of waste a month, with at least 30% of which had to be PET.
Inspiring entrepreneurship is also a key objective if we are to achieve our goal in South Africa for a world without waste. The Riversands Incubation Hub, for example, empowers and trains women entrepreneurs who design and manufacture clothing and souvenirs from PET billboards and other packaging materials. More than 200 women have benefited from the partnership with Riversands and most of them have started their own clothing businesses.
Building more sustainable packaging and more effective recycling programmes as well as thriving communities through innovative entrepreneurship and job creation holds the key to a a greener future.
• Dr Casper Durandt is head of technical SAF for Coca-Cola Africa