Recycling of PET in South Africa

Submitted by: Amanda Botes, Wednesday, September 26, 2012

<p>PET is a type of plastic that is lightweight, transparent and 100% recyclable (Image supplied by PETCO).</p>

PET is a type of plastic that is lightweight, transparent and 100% recyclable (Image supplied by PETCO).

Beverage PET recycling has increased from 16% in 2005 to 42% in 2011.  Cheri Scholtz CEO of the PET recycling company (PETCO) attributes this to a voluntary levy collected by PETCO from PET converters, bottlers and importers of PET. “By paying the recycling levy and other contributions through grants-in-aid, the PET converters, bottlers, raw material producer and Coca-Cola South Africa have all helped PETCO to be the benchmark for extended producer responsibility and to bale-by-bale, year-by-year, reduce the volume of post-consumer PET plastic in the waste stream”, says Scholtz.  42 651 tons of PET were collected and recycled out of a 145 000 ton 2011 local consumption resin market resulting in a recycling rate of 29% of total PET in South Africa for 2011.  

What is PET?

PET, short for Polyethylene Terephthalate is a type of plastic (with a plastic identification code number 1) that is used most commonly in the beverage industry and is made from ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid which are crude oil derivatives. It is also used in the food and non-food industry. PET is gaining popularity says Scholtz because it is lightweight, transparent and 100% recyclable.  

Voluntary levy

The voluntary levy set up by PETCO on all PET resin purchased in the industry “places a value on PET products and is used to support the PET recycling sector in periods of low economic growth” says Scholtz.  The levy is used to support existing, and encourage new, PET collection and recycling networks and to promote consumer education and awareness programmes. The overall aim of the levy system is to minimise the environmental impact of post-consumer PET on the South African landscape.

The PET recycling process

Discarded PET bottles are collected, mostly by informal collectors, and delivered to PET recycling plants. At the recycling plant they are sorted by colour, washed, and cut into recycled PET pellets which can be used to manufacture new products.  In South Africa most of the PET that is recycled is made into fibre that is used to manufacture products such as automotive parts, fabric for clothing, upholstery and fibre filling for pillows, sleeping bags and winter jackets. The bottle to fibre market is reaching saturation, says Scholtz, and PETCO is investigating new end use markets for used PET.  

Barriers to PET recycling in South Africa

One of the main barriers to PET recycling in South Africa is gaining access to the discarded PET product as waste is not separated at source, says Scholtz.  Most PET bottles are collected from landfill sites by informal collectors who sort through waste to retrieve the bottles. The quality of these bottles is decreased when mixed with wet waste explains Scholtz.  Another barrier to recycling in South Africa is that landfilling of waste is still relatively cheap and the full environmental costs are not taken into account, therefore little responsibility is taken in this area notes Scholtz.

Scholtz also says that it has been difficult to change the mindsets of the South African public who still view recyclable products as waste.  As part of PETCO’s education programme PETCO have run a campaign titled “Plastic bottles are not trash” aimed at creating awareness that PET is 100% recyclable and highlighting the value of PET as a raw material for new products.

What organisations and individuals can do to improve the recycling rates of PET in South Africa

Organisations can assist with the recycling rates of PET by separating their waste at their offices and factories and changing procurement policies so that all packaging that is bought has some recycled content, says Scholtz.

Individuals can also contribute by separating their waste into recyclable and non-recyclable waste and dropping off their PET at recycling stations. Furthermore individuals can assist informal collectors of PET by separating their PET from their other waste placing the PET in clear plastic bags for roadside collection. This makes it easier for informal collectors to see the content of the bags, says Scholtz.

PETCO are also encouraging product designers to design with the end use of the product in mind.  Using materials that are recyclable and labelling products clearly with recycling information are important so that the impact of the product on the environment is reduced.

Comparison with other countries

Scholtz adds that South Africa compares favourably with other countries in terms of the percentage of beverage PET that is recycled and is ahead of the United States of America in this area. Most importantly PET bottles collected in South Africa are recycled in South Africa and not exported to China which is common practice for many countries, says Scholtz.

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Amanda Botes