Discarding used plastics is avoidable

Waste-pickers dragging their makeshift trolleys through suburban streets on rubbish collection day confirm that PET plastic bottles are a picker’s gold. That’s because PET manufacturers have made a concerted effort to develop a market for the recycled product.

Petco chief executive Cheri Scholtz said an average of one million bottles is collected in South Africa every day. The company was established in 2005 by the PET plastics industry, in tandem with government plans for integrated waste management.

Over the past five years it has facilitated the recycling of 957-million bottles, the equivalent of almost 30 000 tons of post-consumer waste. Petco is funded by levies from PET plastic producers, creating an industry that provides income for about 17 000 people and has set up 65 plastic recovery stations throughout South Africa.

“Plastics are now such an integral part of our daily lives that virtually everything we do and much of the food and drink we consume involves the use of plastics in some form or other,” said Petco consultant Sheryl Ozinski.

“It has become the ultimate material for the 21st century and makes our lives possible in a way that could hardly be imagined without it. “Unfortunately, discarded plastics have become a symbol of mankind’s waste of resources. Too much of the plastics that we use are thrown into landfill. This is a very bad habit and an inappropriate use of scarce resources. What is more, it is completely avoidable.”

Scholtz said annual collection targets are set by the Petco board, made up of representatives of PET plastic resin manufacturers, brand owners, converters and retailers.

Subsidies to recyclers are paid according to tonnage of recovered bottles. The bottles are turned into fibre that has many uses, including carpets, road stabilisers, ceiling insulation, padded jacket fillers, pillows and duvet fillers, and even clothing.

During the Fifa World Cup last year, Cape Tourism promotional T-shirts proclaimed: “I am wearing five recycled bottles.” There are two bottle-to-fibre conversion plants in South Africa, based in Newcastle and Milnerton.

A new state-of-the-art facility that will take up to 22 000 tonnes of plastic a year is being developed by Sen Li Da Chemical Fibre company in Newcastle. Recent advances in PET recycling technology have made it possible to “close the loop” by recycling used bottles back into new bottles.

Recycling company Extrupet produces about 24 000 tonnes of PET recyclate at its Wadeville plant each year, mostly from post-consumer waste. Woolworths sandwich bags contain some of this recycled plastic.

“The target is to recycle half of all beverage PET by 2015 and 70% by 2020, through working in partnership with the PET value chain and all levels of government to facilitate and promote effective end-use markets, technologies and recycling infrastructure,” said Ozinski.

The Greening the Future judges praised Petco’s bottle-to-bottle approach. “It sets a benchmark for integrated waste management and producer responsibility,” the judges said.

They were also impressed by its effective governance and the fact that 87% of the company’s budget is spent on operations. “Petco has strong management endorsement, good engagement with its supply chain and strong targets, in addition to its admirable environmental ambitions,” they said.

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Michelle Nel
Michelle Nel has worked as a freelance environmental journalist, photographer and editor for more than 20 years. She is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Leadership Corps and was the first freelancer to win the SAB Environmentalist Journalist of the Year Award for print. She serves on the Linbro Park Environmental Monitoring Committee in Gauteng, which aims to turn a closed landfill site into a recycling and recreational area. She has helped numerous organisations with their communications strategies on issues ranging from people and parks to wetlands.

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