One of the challenges currently facing the plastics industry is developing a new waste management plan, which entails how best to avoid landfilling as well as carbon and water footprints, says Plastics Federation of South Africa (PFSA) executive director David Hughes.
The National Environmental Management Waste Act of 2008 requires selected industries, including the plastics industry, to develop an industry waste management plan.
The Department of Environmental Affairs is finalising implementation strategies for certain elements of the Act. Hughes says that the plastics industry, through the PFSA, is involved in these developments, which he believes will reshape the waste management industry.
The PFSA has teamed up the plastic packag- ing industry with other packaging material industries, such as glass, paper and cans, under the auspices of the Packaging Council of South Africa, to develop a paper and packaging industry waste management plan.
Fortunately, through its association with international agencies and other plastics organisations, the PFSA is able to tap into best practice in its designs and intentions. However, Hughes says that the waste manage- ment plan will cost the industry and con- sumers more – through the extended producer responsibility (EPR).
EPR is a strategy aimed at encouraging the integration of the environmental costs of products, throughout their life cycles, into the product’s market price. EPR promotes the view that, since producers have the most control over product design and marketing, they are in a position to reduce toxicity and waste, and should take responsibility for this process. It holds producers liable for the costs of managing products’ end-of-life.
Hughes says that the traditional waste hierarchy – reducing, reusing and recycling of waste [in order of importance] – has resulted in far too much ‘valuable’ waste still going to landfills, through inadequate application. “Plastics are far too valuable to waste and this is well understood in South Africa. The local recycling industry is well developed and is quite capable of coping with more waste feedstock. However, until the postconsumer collection of recyclables is implemented at source, there will be a shortage of clean plastic waste,” he adds.
He believes that South Africa is well placed internationally, in view of its achievements in recycling, and has set a benchmark for many countries in its efforts to recycle plastics.
“The Waste Act implementation will help enormously, provided the municipalities discharge their obligations. The Cape Town municipality, followed by the eThekwini municipality, is ahead of the rest of South Africa’s municipalities in implementing post-consumer collection. Other municipalities have much to do. But the plastics industry remains ready to deal with increased levels of feedstock recycling,” he says.
Local recycling and the production of recycled polymers are increasing all the time, and are set to increase even further once post-consumer collection of recyclables is implemented, he says.
He explains that the use of plastic brings about sustainability benefits and plays a significant role in reducing the mass of loads transported, thereby saving fuel and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. High-performance plastic composites reduce the mass of an aircraft, which results in lower fuel consumption and lower prices for passengers.
Hughes says that expanded polystyrene (EPS) is increasingly used in construction projects, while polyvinyl chloride continues to offer cost-effective building solutions. EPS is made from 98% air and 2% polystyrene, and the product and its manu- facturing waste can be fully recycled. EPS is used in floors, walls and roofs owing to its light weight, strength and thermal insulation. “Ever-increasing building costs, the need for rapid building techniques, soaring energy prices and greater awareness of energy conservation have cast the spotlight on EPS,” he says.
Meanwhile, State-owned power utility Eskom’s proposed tariff increase could prove to be a critical issue for the plastics industry, says Hughes. “Electricity is a very significant cost component in the plastics industry, as almost all conversion techniques involve heat generation and transfer, coupled with cooling cycles,” he says.
The PFSA continues to invest in skills development and, coupled with the willing- ness of industry to sponsor employee training, ensures that many parts of the industry have well-trained staff. However, Hughes says that the industry does not necessarily have all the skills it needs.
“There is a shortage of better-qualified persons between national qualifications framework (NQF) level 5 and NQF level 10. This has been worsened by the closure of certain departments at most technikons. There are also not enough university- qualified polymer chemists,” Hughes says.
The PFSA is examining ways to remedy this situation, but extra funding is required to provide the necessary resources. “Learnership programmes for the industry are supported by the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education Training Authority and the PFSA, and will help to alleviate this challenge. These programmes are well accepted and are producing results,” he concludes.