Technology boost for SA’s recycling sector

In a move set to revolutionise how recyclable materials are traded, tracked and traced in South Africa, an innovative technology called BanQu is being rolled out further to recycling buy-back centres across the country.

The digital platform will help buy-back centres accurately record and track their recycling transactions with waste pickers – as well as trace the origins of the recycling – while providing a real-time business management tool enabling them to better understand and manage their businesses.

South Africa’s PET plastic producer responsibility organisation (PRO), PETCO, is driving the rollout of the BanQu technology in a project called Up, which commenced in 2021 and is funded by The Coca-Cola Foundation.

Over the next year, the system will be rolled out to 100 buy-back centres identified by PETCO across the country, with 10 centres in Gauteng, Limpopo and the Western and Eastern Cape who are live and transacting on the system so far.

Once registered on the BanQu system, the buy-back centres can capture the quantity of recyclable material bought from waste pickers, as well as the price paid for it and where it was collected. This allows buy-back centres to know the quantity of all materials within their centres at any given time. The waste pickers, in turn, receive an SMS receipt for each transaction and can keep track digitally of their income earned through sales to various buy-back centres.

To-date the 10 live centres have registered over 1 400 waste pickers on the BanQu system, and more than 2 350 tonnes of recyclable material worth more than R5.7 million have been recorded.

Suzan Banda was one of the first to register her buy-back centre in Etwatwa, Ekurhuleni, on BanQu earlier this year. ‘I used to write in an invoice book, which took so long. This is much quicker, and the waste picker immediately gets an SMS with all the details about the weight of the material and the price,’ she said, adding that she could already see the difference it had made to her business. ‘I’m getting more customers because I can process the transactions quicker.’

Melody Nyamakura, one of the workers at Main Buy-Back Centre in Johannesburg’s CBD, is enthusiastic about the benefits of BanQu which, she said, ‘benefits everyone’ in the value chain: the waste picker, the buy-back centre and, in her case, her employer.

‘The waste pickers were thrilled when we introduced BanQu, because they can keep track of what they’ve sold and are able to compare their transactions weekly or monthly.  For me, once we’ve weighed the material and captured the details, the transaction is immediately sent to my employer, who can check the stock on his phone. In the past, he would have to wait for me to give him a report. Also, because each transaction is uploaded in real time, we no longer need to calculate turnover at the end of the day. It’s all there already,’ Nyamakura said.

Another advantage of the system is that if, for example, there is a sudden decline in the number of boxes that are usually brought in, the buy-back centre can compare the numbers at a glance and try to establish what might have changed.

‘It’s really convenient and much quicker than the old manual system we used, and easy to learn. It’s definitely worth it,’ she said.

PETCO CEO Cheri Scholtz said BanQu was helping to integrate the informal sector into the recycling value chain – an area in which PETCO has been working for many years and which is now a requirement in the Section 18 Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations of the Waste Act.

Scholtz said that, because informal waste collection was based largely on cash transactions, the majority of the estimated 52 000 waste pickers in South Africa typically had no record of their earnings and so remained largely unbanked and unable to access the kinds of services available to those who were self-employed or had a record of employment in the formal sector.

The benefit of the technology was that both waste pickers and buy-back centres were able to build up permanent digital financial records, which could be used to access credit to grow their businesses, said Scholtz.

‘PETCO supports buy-back centres countrywide by sponsoring infrastructure, essential equipment and training to help them grow and improve efficiencies. Adding digital technology to the mix is the logical next step to empower these small businesses and take them to the next level,’ she said. The system would also provide a more accurate view of their significant contribution to the recycling value chain and circular economy, Scholtz added.

‘Recording and analysing aggregate data at collector and buy-back centre level will be a step change in understanding market dynamics, pricing and collector behaviour, and ensuring more equitable earning for the informal sector,’ said Scholtz. She explained that the individual data provided by the buy-back centres or waste pickers was aggregated and would remain private. ‘Any personal information will be protected in accordance with the Protection of Public Information Act (POPIA), and will not be sold to third parties,’ said Scholtz.

‘The Coca-Cola Foundation is committed to making a difference in communities around the world and we wanted to ensure that we are supporting a cause that does just that, through grant funding provided to PETCO. BanQu’s innovative platform helps waste reclaimers and buy-back centres find the value in waste, supporting a circular economy that helps protect the environment and create a better shared future,’ says Saadia Madsbjerg, President of The Coca-Cola Foundation.

BanQu founder and CEO Ashish Gadnis said BanQu used secure blockchain technology to track and trace recycled material across the recycling value chain, ensuring price transparency for both buyers and sellers.

‘It takes less than an hour to set up the system and train a buy-back centre team. The platform works on any device that can connect to the internet and is cloud-based. Nothing is saved to a device, nor are smartphones necessary. BanQu was built to empower smallholder farmers in our food supply chains and the informal waste collectors, who are the true heroes of the circular economy. This incredible partnership brings major scale to that vision,’ said Gadnis.