Extended producer liability at heart

There's a popular slogan that's often seen at the entrance to national parks and other protected areas: "Take only photographs; leave only footprints."

It's aimed at tourists — those enjoying an escape from polluted cities. But what if companies are asked to take these words to heart?

The concept of extended producer liability does just this.

By making companies accountable for the environmental costs of the products they sell, even after purchase, responsibility for waste management is shifted from the government back to the private sector.

Usually, this means a stepped-up focus on recycling programmes. Ultimately, such initiatives have the potential to reduce pollution in both rural and urban areas.

The PET Recyling Company (Petco) was formed in 2004 and is one such example. It represents the local plastic industry's first joint effort to take responsibility for polyethylene terephthalate bottles — known as PET.

Over the past few years, PET packaging has become ever more pervasive as bottled water sales soar. Recycling plastic bottles reduces the amount of energy and non-renewable resources needed to create virgin plastic, and reduces pollution and littering.

Petco is supported by 99% of bottle producers in South Africa, says chief executive Cheri Scholtz.

"This kind of thing has to be a partnership. It cannot just be about one portion of the value chain. It has to be a partnership between all those players."

Scholtz says her organisation has been successful because the industry has been willing to go beyond collecting bottles in order to develop a market for the recycled material.

Petco supports the entire value chain, by creating a network that includes resin producers, packaging designers, converters, brand owners, retailers, consumers, educators, collectors and recyclers.

Resources and financing for recycling efforts come from a voluntary levy paid by plastic producers.

So far, Petco's efforts have helped create more than 26 000 indirect income opportunities, primarily in waste management, product development, manufacturing and marketing.

It has developed infrastructure worth R300-million and established over 430 plastic recovery stations throughout South Africa.

The PET industry and partners have successfully developed markets for recycled content, including duvet fillings, boot linings, polyester fleece and more. Consumers no longer regard these products as inferior, says Scholtz.

"You have to understand the full life cycle of the product. You can't collect the product for recycling and not have something to recycle into," she says.

Petco's targets are based on the number of bottles discarded after use, referred to as "post-consumer", rather than excess packaging collected from factories.

In 2012 post-consumer recycling volumes rose to 45%, up from 42% in 2011, exceeding Petco's recycling target by 1%. By contrast, only around 30% of PET bottles in the US are recycled.

Local recycling volumes increased from 42 562 tonnes in 2011 to 50 280 tonnes in 2012, while local market consumption of PET grew from 145 000 to 166 000 tonnes.

By 2015, Petco aims to recycle 50% of post-consumer PET waste. "This will be a landmark year for us," says Scholtz. "We will have tackled the low-hanging fruit. The challenge going forward will be to unlock more and more collection."

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