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“Fixing South Africa’s broken waste management system”

Without the correct infrastructure to processpost-consumer waste, the massive pollution it is causing in South Africa will translate into even more flow of plastic waste into the environment. Ideally, and it works for developed countries, the recycling chain for plastics is simple: collect, clean, sort, grind into flake and create new products. This is not the case in our country, where the recycling chain is far longer, and is literally weighed down because of the conditions under which waste is collected, which in turn makes it more expensive to process.

Anton Hanekom, Executive Director of Plastics SA, the organisation that represents all sectors of the SA plastics industry, is fighting what sometimes feels like a losing battle. ‘The current mandate of municipalities is to collect and take to landfill. The collectors waste pick from those landfills and and because ‘wet’ (organic) waste is not separated from ‘dry’ recyclables, what is recovered is very dirty and contaminated, so requires extra washing and drying processes.’

Hindering the collector’s recovery is the limited time they have to cherry pick through the landfills waste before bulldozers cover the garbage with sand. What they can collect is sold to buy-back centres that pick through a second time before baling product that will be delivered to recyclers. These c companies also pick through the product, discarding where necessary. Throughout these picking stages there is still a waste element that will go back to landfill, or worse end up in the environment. ‘Each of these steps add costs and contribute very little value,” says Hanekom.

What also has to be factored in, is that plastic have been scientifically proven to be one of the most environmentally-friendly packaging materials. To produce requires less energy, far less waste is generated, and has lower carbon emissions. But as an end product, and largely because it is lightweight, floats and is visible, it has been identified as one of the major pollutants, which is somewhat unfair because it has enormous reusable benefits. 

The 2021 plastic recovery stats are currently being determined, but in 2020, 43,7% of all recyclable plastic waste were recovered. Much of this was lost because of the contamination at dump sites. It is as Hanekom says, ‘the cleaner the material is and the better it can be sorted and baled, the higher the price will be’ … and the higher the price, the better the solution that can be applied.

That solution is to separate waste at source. We know this, it’s really as simple as providing households with the facilities to separate dry and wet waste, which can then be delivered to a central place for sorting. ‘Households already understand the need for separation but as the latest figures from Stats SA show, more than 39% of South Africans do not have access to formal waste management systems and need to rely on their own means to deal with their waste.

If centralised, as said, waste will have far greater value for all, and more players can enter the recycling chain. ‘Wet waste will go to industrial composting facilities, and/or landfill where it will decompose. Dry waste at a central depot can be sorted for recycling, even sweet wrappers and single-use straws that are not currently recovered from landfills. For the products that are not recyclable or sold to recyclers, we need to develop solutions, even if it means small scale incineration or pyrolysis – the heating of an organic material – to provide energy or fuel for the beneficiation facility.The added benefit is that “the undesirables” will be in one spot from where it can be beneficiated without incurring additional costs to collect.’

As it is, only 22% of all locally manufactured plastics waste is available to market. Hanekom says the industry believes that volumes will increase in time. ‘Over the past five years, we have definitely seen a greater awareness around the need for recycling and an embrace of the circular economy. This can be attributed to ongoing marketing and educational campaigns, especially those around plastic, that have raised awareness of the dangers of littering and the importance of recycling,’ says Hanekom. ‘However, we need to continue with these efforts to change the traditional, linear mindsets of “use and dispose” so that we can keep materials in the value chain for as long as possible.’

Regardless that Plastics SA and its members motivate and undertake clean-up operations, and even if innovations come about that allow plastics to be 100% recyclable, or replaced with an alternative, the fact remains that these products will not be collected while the system remains broken. ‘All we are really doing right now is putting a bandage on the problem,’ says Hanekom.

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