Building a sustainable future, one piece of plastic at a time

Under the leadership of its CEO, Patricia Pillay, Polyco – the plastic packaging PRO (Producer Responsibility Organisation) in South Africa – is successfully achieving its mission of making plastic waste a valuable resource for the economy, through its investment in plastic collection and recycling businesses, whilst creating a cleaner and healthier environment for all.

Established as a non-profit organisation in 2011 by a group of responsible South African polyolefin plastic-packaging converters to deal with polymer identification codes 2, 4, 5 and 7, Polyco has recently increased the scope of its activities to include the representation of all plastic packaging polymer types under mandatory EPR.

The organisation is funded by its members, who are passionate about the environment and are committed to realising a clean South Africa. This is achieved by members paying a fee for every tonne of virgin polymer purchased from either local or overseas raw material suppliers and in turn, Polyco performs their extended producer responsibilities through encouraging recycling and thus driving the reduction of plastic waste ending up in landfills.

The organisation is led by Patricia Pillay, whose journey to becoming the CEO of Polyco started with her being part of the CGCSA (Consumer Goods Council of South Africa), which instilled a strong passion for environmental sustainability and a deep understanding of the challenges posed by plastic waste.

‘I have always been driven by the desire to make a positive impact on the world and leading Polyco allows me to do just that,’ she explained. ‘With a team of dedicated professionals and the support of our members, we are able to invest in plastic recycling and collection businesses, driving the growth of the industry in South Africa and most importantly, creating a cleaner and healthier environment for us all.’

Patricia’s legal and regulatory background plays a crucial role in managing Polyco’s relationships with government, industry bodies and regulatory agencies for its members. One of its priorities is to encourage members to understand and operate within the legal framework and comply with all relevant regulations set by the Department of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).

‘Being an admitted attorney has enabled me to effectively advocate for fair policies and regulations, which sustains the growth of the plastic recycling industry in South Africa in a manner that supports the environmental ecosystem. By building strong relationships with stakeholders, we can work together to address challenges, create a conducive business environment and drive sustainable change on our planet.’

Her leadership style is characterised by collaboration, transparency and a strong focus on results. This is grounded in the belief that by empowering her team and fostering a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, she can create a supportive and inclusive work environment that will attract and retain top talent, while driving the success of Polyco’s ongoing initiatives.

‘Since we are only allowed a small percentage of our EPR fee to be allocated toward administration costs, we have a lean team but this allows most in the team to be multifunctional, willing and able to support each other in their roles whenever the need arises. I also recognise the importance of building strong relationships with stakeholders, as it is through collaboration and partnerships that we can achieve our goals and create lasting change,’ she expounded.

Polyco is achieving its mission of making waste a valuable resource for the economy through its various initiatives. It has invested over R120-million into projects and achieved capacity growth of over 300 000 tonnes of plastics recycling through its investments into over 140 project partners to-date. These are plastics that would ordinarily have gone into the landfill or ended up in the ocean. One of the organisation’s key strategies is the implementation of mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) versus the voluntary scheme that it had prior to 2021.

EPR was gazetted by the DFFE to extend the accountability for the environmental impacts of packaging to the post-consumer stage of the packaging’s life cycle. In practice, it includes packaging producers with the responsibility for the management of packaging after it has been used and becomes waste. This can include its collection, sorting, reuse, recovery, recycling and/or final disposal, with producers being liable for the full cost of collection and treatment of their identified products at its end of life.

With Polyco’s EPR scheme being accredited by Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, Barbara Creecy, EPR is a fundamental aspect of Polyco’s business. It is the organisation’s responsibility to assist producers, brand owners and importers who are held accountable for the entire life cycle of plastic packaging that they produce and put into the South African market, including their post-consumer waste management compliance. This is achieved by providing solutions for increased collection and recycling rates that in turn reduces the amount of plastic waste in the environment.

‘This approach has had a significantly positive effect on South Africa’s environment by promoting a circular economy and reducing the reliance on virgin plastic materials. From a socio-economic perspective, our countrywide community based Packa-Ching project truly demonstrates our impact, through paying out over R17-million to informal community members and collecting over 17-million kilograms of recyclable waste from these communities,’ Patricia stated.

By implementing EPR programs, Polyco focuses on the following initiatives on behalf of its members:

Project Investments

These are large infrastructure projects such as Packa-Ching, a mobile recycling buy-back centre that provides informal communities with income earning opportunities to bring the plastic waste material they collected for recycling and exchange it for cash vouchers; and Enterprise Development Projects in order to meet legislated targets. Additionally, the newly launched smaller Packa-Ching lite units have far more reach and are aimed at enterprise developments.

Waste Picker Integration

Polyco’s EPR service fee goes toward the compensation for waste reclaimers as outlined in the legislation. As an extension, Polyco also supports women in waste in collaboration with the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP) on its “Give Dignity Campaign”. This includes providing tools of the trade to waste reclaimers such as trolleys designed for ease of transporting waste.

Municipal Support

Through is various project investments located across South Africa, including its flagship project in Buffalo City, the non-profit positively impacts various municipalities in these areas, with many developments underway to collaborate even more through municipal engagement and training.

Education & Awareness 

Polyco treats education and awareness as one of its core pillars in growing the plastics recycling industry in South Africa, with a reach of over 2 500 schools (non-fee paying schools included) every year, while continuing to focus on the industry and the South African consumer alike.

Stakeholder Relationships

Established to forge closer working relationships with its members so as to better understand their businesses and thus determine how the organisation can best support them, Polyco boasts a dedicated Stakeholder Engagement Team that is responsible for member services, including its Member Working Groups.

Design for Recyclability

Polyco develops guidelines with key partners like SAPRO (South African Plastics Recycling Organisation) and Plastics | SA to guide producers with the design of products that are easier to recycle, as well as to encourage the use of those made from recyclate thereby supporting the development of recycling infrastructure. This approach significantly contributes to reducing plastic waste by ensuring that producers are actively involved in designing their packaging for collection and recycling in mind. It also encourages innovation and collaboration between stakeholders, leading to more sustainable waste management practices.

With collaboration being a key aspect of the non-profit’s work, the team at Polyco believe that by working together with various stakeholders, they can achieve more significant and sustainable results. One successful collaboration has been with the Centre for Regenerative Design & Collaboration (CRDC), where Polyco provided a loan to purchase machinery that converts unrecyclable and difficult to recycle plastic into eco-aggregate called RESIN8.

This collaboration not only contributes to increased recycling rates but also provides a high-quality eco-aggregate for the construction sector. Such partnerships have enabled the organisation to leverage expertise, resources and networks, which are accelerating its impact and achieving its objectives more effectively.

Empowering women is a cause that is close to Patricia’s heart, with her being personally involved in initiatives like the Home of Hope for Girls that provides support and opportunities for young women rescued from human trafficking. She says that this aligns with Polyco’s mission of creating a sustainable and inclusive society for all.

‘At Polyco, we believe in equal opportunities and diversity, thus we strive to empower women within our organisation and the wider plastic recycling industry. We are vehement supporters of women in waste as well as those with disabilities because through promoting gender equality and inclusivity, we can tap into the full potential of our workforce and drive innovation and positive change in the industry,’ she explained.

The organisation is committed to providing education about recycling to both the industry and consumers throughout South Africa. One of its successful educational initiatives is through Polyco’s Million Plus Recyclers brand, with its development of targeted consumer campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of plastics recycling and responsible waste management. The initial target was to get a million consumers in South Africa to sign a pledge committing to make better choices for the environment, which has since surpassed this number.

Through these campaigns, Polyco aims to change attitudes and behaviours towards plastic waste, promote the adoption of sustainable practices and encourage separation at source as well as active participation in recycling programs. It also collaborates with educational institutions, government departments and other members and partnerships to develop educational materials and programs that provide information and practical guidance on recycling from a grass-roots level. Its collaboration with the Pick n Pay School Club has reached over 2-million learners and over 100 000 educators in 2023 alone.

When asked what inspires her the most about her work at Polyco, Patricia said that it is the opportunity to contribute to a sustainable future and make a positive impact on the environment and society.

‘Plastic waste poses significant challenges, but it also presents us with opportunities to innovate and find creative solutions. I have an amazing team with a shared ethos that drives us to make a positive impact. By investing in recycling and collection businesses, implementing our EPR program and driving collaborations, we are transforming plastic waste into a valuable resource and creating a circular economy,’ she explained.

‘I want to convey to readers the importance of sustainability and the separation of waste at source with responsible waste management. Every small action counts and together, we can build a cleaner, greener and more sustainable future for generations to come – it just takes one person to recycle one piece of plastic to make a difference. Everyone should be that one person,’ Patricia concluded.