SA plastic recycling rate at 43.7%, demand for recycled material low

South Africans are steadily recycling more plastic, but there is a sluggish demand for the recycled material. This could mean there is a reluctance to buy things made from recycled plastic.

“For the second year in a row, the recyclers had more recyclate than was required by their immediate and existing customers. This makes it hard for them to survive and continue their operations, as they are unable to sell their stock. For this reason, developing suitable end-markets has become critical for the sustainability of the plastics recycling industry,” says Anton Hanekom, executive director of Plastics|SA.

Domestic market applications for recycled materials in 2017. Source: Plastics|SA

The organisation, which represents the local plastics industry, released South Africa’s plastic recycling stats for 2017. For the seventh year running, plastics recycling in South Africa grew (by 1.9% compared with 2016), with over 334 727 tons recycled back into raw material. This gives South Africa an input recycling rate of 43.7%, which is above Europe’s recycling rate of 31.1%.

It is noted in the report that all materials recycled or reprocessed in South Africa are expressed as a percentage of locally manufactured plastics products. Because imported plastics are not accounted for, it’s unclear exactly how much plastic is ultimately being sent to landfill.

“South Africa is doing phenomenally well with its recycling,” says Hanekom. He explains that in South Africa there is an economic imperative for recycling rather than an environmental one as in Europe where the process is mechanised, rather than using manual labour and landfill restrictions are in place, which necessitates separation at source through two-bin collection systems.

In South Africa, plastics recycling provided an income to over 58 100 workers in 2017. This figure includes self-employed waste pickers, employees of smaller entrepreneurial collectors and formal jobs in the recycling factories. Through the procurement of recyclables, an estimated R448 million was injected into the economy at primary sourcing level.

Sources of recyclable waste

Hanekom says one of the biggest challenges to building South Africa’s recycling industry over the years, has been getting access to good quality, relatively clean materials before they reach landfills. Despite our calls for separation-at-source, where recyclable materials are separated from non-recyclables, a staggering 74% of the plastics that were recycled during 2017 were still obtained from landfill and other post-consumer sources.

“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. It is a sad reality that in South Africa, recyclables are still being sourced from landfill at high cost and danger to the waste pickers,” Hanekom says. 

He adds that landfill material is often poor quality, contaminated and expensive to recycle.

Strongly lobbying for separation of recyclables at source, the Plastics|SA report says facilities have to be in place for consumers to separate recyclables from wet waste. “There needs to be cooperation between local government and the recycling industry to achieve increased recycling rates and reduced tonnages to landfill.”

“Consumers need to be educated and given the means to separate domestic waste. Sorting at a centralised facility may be manual, semi-automatic or fully automatic, as long as it is a cost-effective means to deal with the volumes. Much cleaner, sorted, compacted recyclables will be available to recyclers if separation at source is regulated in at least the major centres,” says Plastics|SA.

The City of Joburg recently announced a step up in its attempts to advance its separation at source programme, making it mandatory in more areas with a two-bag system. This article from The Star highlights some of the communication and practical challenges that have been associated with the initiative.

See the Plastics|SA Executive Summary report here.

Figures from the 2017 recycling stats report from Plastics|SA.

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