Plastics recycling in South Africa

Submitted by: Margaret McKenzie, Thursday, July 12, 2012

<p>Bales of plastics bags collected from a separation at source project in KwaZulu-Natal (Supplied by SAPRO).</p>

Bales of plastics bags collected from a separation at source project in KwaZulu-Natal (Supplied by SAPRO).

South Africa currently recycles 18% of virgin plastics produced.  This is the second highest plastics recycling rate in the world, only half a percentage behind Australia, the current global leader, says Annabe Pretorius the general manager of the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO).  Western European countries often cite plastic recycling rates of around 90%, however in reality says Pretorius, these countries incinerate most plastic waste and only recycle about 11% of plastics for reprocessing into new plastics products.  

The graph below shows that the annual percentage of plastic recycled in SA is slowly increasing.  However, the total amount of plastic that is not recycled is still escalating because of annual increases in the amount of plastic produced.  As a result South Africa still has a considerable way to go in tackling the current total annual production of 1.3 million tonnes of virgin plastic.

Barriers to increased plastic recycling

Pretorius identifies the three main barriers to increased plastic recycling in South Africa as:

  • Insufficient separation at source: Domestic and office waste should be separated at source.  Without separation, recyclable material becomes mixed up with non-recyclable material and arrives at municipal dumps in a form that is very difficult for on-site waste pickers to separate.
  • 22 plastic recycling streams:   There are six major grades of plastic and within each of these grades are a number of sub-grades all of which are recycled separately. Recycling collectors need to be able to identify and separate out these grades prior to sale to organisations that convert the plastic waste into a reusable form.  
  • Many plastic products can’t be recycled: A number of plastic products simply can’t be recycled, for instance plastic carpeting that has been glued down to flooring. In recent times advances in packaging technology have also led to the emergence of plastic pouches made from more than one type of plastic.  These pouches increase the shelf life of products that they hold, however they are not recyclable with current technology.  SAPRO estimates that a maximum of 40% of virgin plastic made in South Africa can be recycled.

How organisations can contribute to increased recycling rates

In South Africa plastics are either collected directly from homes and businesses or extracted from municipal landfill sites.  A large portion of plastics collection and extraction from municipal landfill sites is done by informal waste pickers.  The sorted plastic is then sold on to formal collectors who sort and bale the plastics and then sell to recycling companies for reprocessing. Pretorius says that there are two main things that organisations can do to improve South African plastic recycling rates:

  • Separate waste at source:  Even if it is not possible to secure a service provider to collect recyclables, waste should be separated at source so that when it is arrives at a waste dump it is easy for waste pickers to separate out bags of plastic waste.   This separation means that waste pickers can increase the efficiency of their waste collection and so increase the tonnages they are able to collect.  This not only increases the earnings of the individual waste picker but increases the tonnages available to the plastics recycling sector.
  • Buy recycled plastic products:  Organisations can show their commitment to sustainability by buying recycled products and at the same time help to increase the local demand for recycled plastic products. 

What is made from recycled plastic?

There are a large variety of recycled plastics products on the market.  In many cases consumers are not even aware that they are purchasing a recycled plastics product says Pretorius.   Examples of recycled products include soles of many well-known footwear brands and insulators on electric fences.  The largest category of recycled product is packaging film which makes up 30% of all recycled plastics products in South Africa.  Packaging film includes items such as wrapping, supermarket carrier bags and garbage bags. 

Pretorius says there is still considerable room for innovation in the creation of recycled plastic products.   In addition, as processing technologies improve there are increased opportunities to include recycled plastic in new products.   To encourage continued innovation SAPRO hosts an annual best recycled plastic product competition.   

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These wood effect furniture feet made from old coat hangers received a silver award in SAPRO’s 2011 best recycled plastic product competition (Supplied by SAPRO).

Margaret McKenzie