Plastics SA releases 2015 plastics recycling figures

Mechanical recycling of plastics in South Africa in 2015 increased three percent, compared to 2014. Plastics SA’s latest survey on recycling in South Africa indicates a three percent increase in mechanically recycled plastics in 2015, when compared to 2014.

Its results for recycling in the year ending December 2015 also indicates:

  • A total of 310 641 tonnes of plastics were diverted from landfill in 2015. This is 1.6 percent less than in 2014, and is due to the significant reduction in the export of recyclable waste.
  • The overall diversion from landfill rate was 20.8 percent, decreasing from 22.5 percent in 2014.
  • Strong growth was seen in the recycling of PET, PE-LD/LLD and polystyrene, due to new capacities that came on line in 2015.
  • Recycling rates of PE-HD, polypropylene and PVC declined as some of the products traditionally made from recyclate of these materials are directly linked to consumer spending and mining activities.

Read the full report here.

Lack of quality materials

According to the latest figures, the lack of a consistent incoming stream of recyclables was the single biggest challenge plastics recyclers had to face last year. A large quantity of the materials that were made available for recycling, was recovered by waste pickers off landfill sites, where they were contaminated and therefore of very poor quality.

In the northern province, where the demand for recyclable materials exceeds supply, up to 40 percent of materials had to be scrapped or rejected due to impurities. According to Hanekom, this clearly highlights the need for an effective separation-at-source infrastructure to be implemented throughout the country.

Incineration, or energy recovery, is popular for large volumes of mixed waste in developed countries. Solid municipal waste can be used, no sorting and very little handling in general is required. Pyrolysis is slowly developing in South Africa to access the fuel value of the discarded products. Trial plants are using tyres as well as plastics to generate crude oil, diesel, gas and carbon black.

‘Official statistics are hard to come by as the plants that do exist, are in most cases only experimental. Although we strongly advocate that plastics be recycled in order to extract the maximum value out of plastic products, there are certain “difficult-to-recycle” plastics, mixed materials and multi-layer packaging films that are suitable for pyrolysis or incineration.’

Support a growing recycling industry

Recycling is a manufacturing process that needs to make money to be sustainable and economically viable. However, recyclers have to operate in an increasingly difficult business environment where they have to face high operating costs, tight margins and day-to-day challenges. These include load shedding, escalating electricity costs, water shortages, and a general downturn in the economy.

‘Recycling is a very cyclical, commodity-based business. However, there seems to be a public perception and expectation that the recycling industry needs to save the planet, extend the supply of natural resources, provide cheaper raw materials, create sustainable jobs, fix the image of plastics littering, save landfill space, and rid the country of its visible litter problem. These things are all expected at no cost to anyone. This is a very important industry that sustained close to 55 000 jobs last year. It needs all the support it can get to continue growing and developing into a priority sector,’ Hanekom urges.

Improving the plastics recycling rate

Like all manufacturing processes, challenges in the recycling industry have to be understood and managed, and opportunities need to be identified and utilised. According to the Plastics SA report, the following elements are needed to grow the country’s recycling figures over the next few years to come:

  • Political will – Decision makers and legislators are not always aware of the achievements and challenges at ground level. To address this, the plastics industry will continue to invite decision makers and legislators to recycling plants to inform them about the intricacies of plastics recycling in South Africa.
  • Stakeholder commitment – Plastics converters have committed themselves to voluntary levies to encourage recycling and create awareness through the various Extended Producer Responsibility organisations. More products need to be designed with their recyclability in mind.
  • Quality of recyclables – Waste pickers, collectors and recyclers need to be educated on the various materials and basic chemical principles that will impact on recyclate quality. Sorting processes need to be managed better. Recyclers should communicate their requirements to their suppliers down the value chain to waste picker level.
  • Energy efficiency – Electricity usage is three to four times more for recyclers than converters for the same tonnages. Energy management must receive priority to minimise and optimise energy usage, for water and electricity. Recyclers will have to do long-term planning for increased costs of energy and may even have to consider self-generation of energy.
  • Public awareness and education – The public needs to be educated about separating-at-source and to insist on recyclable packaging. Consumers need to be educated with regards the removal of shrink labels, separation of various components and cleaning out of residual contents.
  • Alternate technologies – Mechanical recycling has a ceiling, and not all materials can be recycled economically. The plastics industry should find some technology partners to tailor-make alternative recycling methods to deal with plastics waste that cannot be mechanically recycled.

‘The plastics recycling industry has achieved outstanding results in the face of many obstacles and challenges,’ comments Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom. ‘However, we need to use these challenges to help us adapt to changing market needs and expectations. With the help of brand owners and retailers, we will be able to take plastics recycling to a totally new level. Especially those companies willing to get actively involved and put pressure on converters to design products that are recyclable and contain a percentage of recycled material.’



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