INTERVIEW – PLASTIC RECYCLING

“SAPRO charted a new path, spearheading various initiatives to help improve the quality and quantity of raw material (scrap) plastics stream and grow the demand for recycled products”

Johann Conradie, Chairman, South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO) and Lisa Parkes, General Manager, SAPRO share insights into the South African plastics recycling sector, the trends and opportunities, as well as SAPRO’s role and the new path the organisation has charted, reclaiming its voice in the industry and spearheading various initiatives to give effect to these focus areas in an interview with Swaliha Shanavas.

What is the current state of Plastics Recycling in South Africa? Could you provide some information on the amount of plastic scrap generated and the quantities being recycled?

South Africa is amongst the best in the world. In 2018, the total South African converter demand reached 1.544 million tons of virgin polymer, an increase of 3.5 percent and only 0.4 percent of the world’s plastics production. The South Africa plastics industry had a negative trade balance of more than R18 billion and 34.1 percent of South Africans do not have access to regular waste removal services versus 10 countries in Europe with landfill restrictions for recyclables. But plastics managed a 46.3 percent input recycling rate.

Over 519 370 tons of plastics scrap was collected for recycling inside and outside South Africa – 6.7 percent more than the previous year. 352 000 tons of new plastic raw material was manufactured to complement virgin polymer in South Africa, a 12.2 percent increase year on year. Recycled tonnages also grew 64 percent and virgin polymer 21 percent since 2009.

70 percent of all recyclable materials originated from landfill and other postconsumer sources and the tonnages recycled into raw materials saved enough barrels of oil to fuel 200 000 cars for one year doing 30 000 km/annum. Plastics recycling saved 246 000 tons of CO2 – the equivalent emissions of 51 200 cars in the same year.

South Africa has 300 active bona fide recyclers of which 20 percent were doing 70 percent of the tonnages reported. The plastics recycling industry gives direct employment to more than 7800 people and has created a further 58 500 income generating jobs; R2.3 billion rand was injected into the informal sector through the purchasing of recyclable plastic scrap.

Is there a Legal framework and legislation within which plastic scrap is managed overall?

Legislation puts more emphasis on waste avoidance, minimisation, reuse and recycling and the Government published various reports on the waste economy and the value of waste. Relevant legislation includes the Waste Act and related local and municipal bylaws; various South African Bureau of Standards (SABS); and ISO standards (like ISO 18604:2013).

What are the biggest challenges facing the plastics recycling sector in South Africa?

Infrastructure: In South Africa we have weak waste management infrastructure and formal waste management for 65.9 percent of all households.

Contaminants in the waste stream: Increasing amounts of biodegradable, compostable and some form of oxo-biodegradables enter the incoming recyclable waste stream.

Nonrecyclables: There is still a percentage of non-recyclable plastics in product ranges, i.e. multi-layer or multi-material products, too much printing inks, or even the wrong combination for closures and bottles or webbing and stitching on woven bags.

Sustainable recycling operations: It is an ongoing struggle for recyclers to stay sustainable in their businesses with rising costs for energy, transport and labour. What’s more, the cost of incoming materials to the processor increases continuously. Many new entrants are not legally compliant which put an unnecessary financial burden on compliant recyclers.

Alternative recycling: Recycling of the low hanging fruit is one aspect that receives a lot of attention. However, there are materials and products that will not be economically viable to collect or to transport or even to recycle. Solutions need to be found for these difficultto- recycle materials. It may be a combination of mechanical recycling and the manufacturing of composites like cement aggregate, paving bricks or generating energy.

Low participation rates: There is a lack of will, incentive or education for citizens to recycle.

What are the key trends and opportunities in plastics recycling in South Africa?

The biggest opportunities in South Africa as a developing country are:

Job creation: Plastics recycling sustained 7892 formal jobs in 2018 in the recycling factories. The tonnages per employee dropped to 44.5 tons. It is estimated that 58 470 workers received an income through the supply chain, 6000 more than in 2017. These include selfemployed waste pickers and employees of smaller entrepreneurial collectors.

Economic benefits: Through the procurement of recyclables, an estimated R2 267 million was injected into the economy at primary sourcing level – material bought from waste-pickers, collectors and waste management companies.

Other opportunities are:

• to work closely in partnership with the government to develop infrastructure to collect and manage waste and increase recycling

• for innovation to advance and scale new technologies and to drive packaging and product design and innovation to facilitate recovery and recycling thereof

• education and engagement of governments, businesses, and communities to mobilise action towards a circular economy

• to become responsive to the global shifts in single use plastics towards more sustainable packaging solutions.

Tell us briefly about SAPRO’s role in this sector.

The South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO) represents the plastics recyclers or reprocessors. The members process sorted, compacted plastic recyclables obtained from formal and informal collectors.

SAPRO assists recyclers in: Building a recycling industry that is respected and acknowledged by government, industry and the public; Addressing our collective challenges in a constructive way; Growing our industry and respective recycling initiatives and businesses in volume, technology and profitability; Presenting a united voice that influences external decision-making positively; Continuing to have a positive impact on the environment to preserve and protect resources.

What are the latest developments as a result?

2018/19 has been challenging for the South African economy, with the country only realising a GDP growth rate of 0.8 percent, putting us among the worst performers in Sub-Saharan Africa. With this economic backdrop, 2018 was an extremely difficult period for established recyclers. We navigated numerous challenges, including tough drought conditions, a steep hike in electricity prices, power outages, shifts in the regulatory environment (with waste licenses coming under the spotlight), problems with supply, competition in a saturated market, higher operational costs- and most crippling, the wage negotiations and strike action.

Despite the challenges, we remained afloat, and the period – no matter how challenging – did present opportunities. After many years of lobbying by SAPRO, most of the retailers moved their carrier bags from virgin to 100 percent PCR content, simultaneously also improving the recyclability of the bags by reducing the filler content.

The anti-plastics sentiment also provided an opportunity for reflection on the alternatives, maintaining the intrinsic value of plastic as resource (through design for circularity and new market development) and better end-oflife solutions for the product – mitigating the environmental impacts caused by the improper and careless disposal of plastic products.

The SAPRO board identified 3 key strategic focus areas to be pursued to ride the global tide of growth in the sector, namely: Improving the quality of the raw material (scrap) plastics stream; increasing the quantity of the raw material (scrap) plastics stream; and growing the demand for the recycled product.

SAPRO charted a new path, reclaiming its voice in the industry and spearheading various initiatives to give effect to these focus areas including:

• Stepping up its advocacy role, promoting the development of improved infrastructure and collection systems, including separation at source – to improve quality and quantity of plastic feedstock for recyclers;

• The active promotion of Design for Recycling and circular design principles to increase the volume of recyclable plastics and improve the quality of recyclate, thereby boosting confidence of convertors and brand owners in its use;

• Stimulating demand for recycled plastics in new applications through platforms like its Best Recycled Product Awards – to raise awareness and showcase the wide variety of products that are locally designed and manufactured using recycled plastics, and to improve market acceptance of locally manufactured recycled plastic products.

Collaboration has also been pinned high on the SAPRO masthead. Together with the World Wildlife Fund we hosted a very successful first Design for Recycling Indaba in March 2019, to get everyone to start collaborating around responsible product design and innovation.