According to the 2017 statistics released by Plastics SA, recycling in South Africa continued to grow with more than 334 727 tonnes of products recycled back to raw material. South Africa’s input recycling rate is now 43,7 percent – well above the 31,1 percent recycling rate of Europe.
Anton Hanekom, executive director at Plastics SA, says: “South Africa is doing phenomenally well with its recycling, and I believe the latest results show that we are slowly but steadily beating the odds.” He explains that the South African recycling industry is based on economic principles whereas, in Europe, recycling is an environmental principle to which most citizens and local councils subscribe.
“In South Africa, recycling needs to be financially viable in order to succeed, while in Europe it is the right thing to do. Locally, we rely on manual labour to sort the waste and recycle, while the entire process has become mechanised overseas,” Hanekom notes.
“Furthermore, there are landfill restrictions in place for recyclable and recoverable waste in some of the 28 European Union countries, while South Africa only has formal waste management for 64 percent of all households. More than 12 percent of metropolitan households do not even have regular refuse removal, much less a two-bin waste collection system where recyclables are collected separately on a weekly basis,” he adds.
A challenge for the industry over the years was intercepting good-quality, relatively clean materials before they reached landfills. Despite pleas for separation at source from the industry, 74 percent of plastic recycled in 2017 was obtained from landfill and 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. Landfill material is often poor quality, contaminated and expensive to recycle.
However, the plastics-recycling industries provided income to more than 58 100 workers in 2017. According to Plastics SA, procuring recyclable material injected an estimated R448 million into the economy. Low-density polyethylene packaging films remain the most widely recycled material in South Africa; however, PET beverage bottle recycling continues to increase, especially after the drought in the Western Cape, which saw a spike in sales of mineral water .
Plastics raw materials are becoming scarcer as the population increases. It has become important to deal with resources responsibly. Recyclables should be recognised as a valuable resource and should be removed from the solid waste stream before reaching a landfill.
“By embracing recycling as a way of life, I believe we can bring about a change in attitudes and mind-sets, even elevating plastics to become the environmental hero,” Hanekom concludes.