Better recycling requires pact with consumers

19th October 2018 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Contributing Editor

While commercial companies continue to work to reduce the impact of their products on the environment, improving the recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) requires the involvement and understanding of consumers, says recycling company Mpact GM Nicholas Schild.

PET recycling rates in South Africa are high and the country can be proud of its achievement, he says, but most of the recycled waste that the company treats is recovered from landfill sites and fuel and transport costs remain the single largest cost in the recycling supply chain.

Higher collection rates and lower contamination and cross-contamination of recyclable materials can boost the viability of recycling and the quality of recycled materials and increase the use of recycled materials, says Schild.

There are already retailer and distributor collection schemes in place to recover as much of the packaging as early as possible within the supply chain and avoid contamination. These types of collection schemes also reduce the transport costs for recyclers, emphasises Schild.

Similarly, food manufacturers and packagers often redesign packaging to reduce the amount of PET they contain and ensure that the formulations of the plastics used are recyclable. Most are also investigating greater use of recycled materials, but are discouraged by the potential negative impact on customer experience, says Schild.

The use of recycled PET in consumer products may reduce the visual appeal of the container and packaging of a product and consumer purchase choices and preferences are often weighed against the greater use of recycled materials in packaging.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) burns at temperatures at which PET melts, and PVC contamination can cause tiny black spots – burned PVC – in packaging containing recycled PET. This discolouration does not impact on food safety and there are no food safety implications of using recycled materials in packaging, he adds.

“Consumer choice can add to the momentum of recycling and environment-conscious manufacturing practices. Consumer education and encouraging conscientious behaviour might help to increase recovery rates over time.”

While the general aim in South Africa is to separate only recyclable from non-recyclable materials, better collection and separation at source can improve the quality of recovered recyclable materials and, specifically, increase the diversion of these recyclable materials from landfill sites.

“Basic actions like rinsing or, in water-scarce areas, wiping out a food tin before placing it in a bag reduces contamination. Better separation closer to source will also help to discourage the practice of filling bottles with water or adding rocks to increase the weight of a bag to fraudulently get more money for recycled materials.”

Better separation also aids the individual collectors by providing them with greater volumes of cleaner materials, and helps to improve the business fundamentals of small-enterprise recyclers, as evidenced by Mpact’s work in promoting cardboard and paper recovery in KwaZulu-Natal, says Mpact Recycling MD John Hunt.

The company’s direct involvement in providing baling machines, technical training and bulk collection from small recycling enterprises in St Lucia, Eshowe and Mtubatuba, among others, has seen an encouraging growth in volumes from 50 t a month to more than 400 t a month to 500 t a month and has typically led to a tripling of formal employment provided by these small paper recyclers, he adds.

Coca-Cola Southern and East Africa head of sustainability Dr Casper Durandt says that the company supports an increase in the virgin PET recycling fee – from R423/t to R1 000/t – to further stimulate the recycling value chain. The fee is small compared to a cost of R22 000/t for virgin PET. This fits into the extended producer responsibility mechanism, functioning as a tax by industry on its own resin purchases that are channelled to recycling.

Mpact’s R350-million PET recycling facility, in Germiston, on the East Rand, can process about 23 000 t/y of recovered PET, and the main costs are water and electricity. The company can increase the throughput of the facility, if it can secure higher volumes of PET from waste streams, concludes Schild.