Over 2 billion plastic bottles recovered for recycling in SA

Statistics from South Africa’s longest-standing plastics producer responsibility organisation indicate that the country’s PET plastic recycling rates are recovering after the lockdown regulations resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to figures released at the PET Recycling Company’s (PETCO) annual general meeting in June, 2.1 billion PET bottles were diverted from landfill last year thanks to the various recycling efforts in which it was involved.

On the back of waste management experts warning that parts of South Africa could soon run out of landfill space, CEO Cheri Scholtz said PETCO’s efforts had saved an area equivalent to 560 495 cubic metres and prevented potential associated carbon emissions of 135 604 tonnes in 2021.

Despite a challenging year for the paper and packaging sector, PETCO, which represents producers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) packaging, grew its collection of post-consumer PET bottles for recycling by 14% – from 79 078 tonnes in 2020 to 90 402 tonnes in 2021.

‘In spite of the impact of prolonged Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews on collection rates, which restricted the movement of informal collectors, 63% of PET packaging that was placed on the market by PETCO members was collected for recycling in 2021,’ Scholtz said.

‘Once lockdown regulations eased, PETCO made a concerted effort to stimulate collection by supporting informal waste pickers and formal collection businesses, buy-back centres and recyclers, and encouraging them to grow capacity and capability.’

With mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations laying down Year 1 targets for PET of 60% for beverage bottles, 7% for oil bottles, 9% for thermoforms and 60% for single-use products, she said the current collection rate places PETCO in good stead to meet these targets.

‘Although these targets are applicable for year one of mandatory EPR, comparatively speaking, these figures would indicate that we are well placed to be compliant on behalf of our members.

‘In 2021, we started to expand our reporting methodology in order to be able to track progress against all the identified products that our members place on the market for which we offer an EPR scheme. Using information provided by our members on exactly what they place on the market, in combination with assumptions provided by our recycling partners of the make-up of a typical bale that they purchase, we were able to measure collection of identified products such as beverage bottles, oil bottles, home and personal care bottles and non-PET elements such as labels and closures.

‘In 2022, we will be doing full bale characterisation studies, which will allow us to report with further granularity, not only meeting the requirements of the regulations but showing our diverse membership how we are tracking their particular products,’ said Scholtz.

She said PETCO’s key objective was to keep members’ packaging out of the environment, where it does not belong, and increasingly get it recycled to be re-used in packaging.

‘In other words, we aim for a cradle-to-cradle solution for post-consumer PET to promote a circular economy for PET plastic.’

The PET recycling economy created real value, said Scholtz, generating a total of R1.2 billion for the South African economy through the placement of end-use products on local and international markets in the year under review.

The PETCO model supported sustainable collection and recycling by working with the whole PET value chain – from resin producers through to converters, bottlers, brand owners, retailers, consumers, waste pickers, buy-back centres, formal collection and waste management companies, and contracted recycling partners, she said.

The organisation’s work is funded by the mandatory EPR fee paid by its members – those PET producers, made up of brand owners, retailers and importers, who place more than 10 tonnes of identified products per annum on the South African market. Such producers are now legally mandated to establish or join an EPR scheme for each of their identified products, and were required to be compliant with the regulations by November 5 last year.

PETCO chair Tshidi Ramogase, who is also the director of public affairs, communications and sustainability for Coca-Cola Beverages Africa, said PETCO’s robust EPR model was predicated on international best practice, and had been vindicated by the results.

‘Our sound reputation in the sector and longstanding relationships with the key players in the collection and recycling value chain ensures that we are ideally placed to successfully deliver on the legislated targets on behalf of our members,’ Ramogase said.

‘We are also encouraged to see that after two years of grappling with economic volatility under the grip of a global pandemic, we are starting to see a glimmer of economic recovery. I am proud of the way that PETCO responded to the collection challenges posed by the lockdown regulations, and our ability to act swiftly and decisively to facilitate direct support to the value chain, can be seen in the collection rate achieved in 2021.’

Aside from taking responsibility for the entire life cycle of their packaging products, producer members are now also required to include and report on the percentages of recycled content in their packaging, with demand for recycled PET (rPET) expected to increase exponentially.

According to Scholtz, the food-grade and bottle-to-bottle sector represented the most circular use of PET and accounted for one third of all collected tonnage in the PET recycling economy last year.

‘As PETCO, we are focusing on supporting the value chain to ensure the availability of rPET for our members, who are also required by law to include a certain percentage of recycled PET content in their packaging. With PETCO’s support, provision of rPET increased by 17% in comparison to 2020.’

‘To assist in addressing the current shortage of rPET and ensuring the sustainability of the recycling economy, our focus is now on designing packaging for circularity and the bottle-to-bottle markets.’

Scholtz added that the new regulatory requirements for producers of PET packaging and components had not demanded a massive shift for the organisation, as it had been operating as one of the few voluntary national EPR bodies working to targets for the past 17 years.

‘PETCO remains the PRO of choice for the majority of PET bottle producers, as we assist our members to comply with the new regulations. As a voluntary PRO we had always set internal targets for key performance indicators such as collection, and we are now aligning with the regulated targets under the EPR legislation. However, our trusted approach within the PET collection and recycling value chain remains largely the same,’ said Scholtz.