The plastics recycling rate in South Africa dropped last year, a victim of low oil prices and, indirectly, a system that relies heavily on people picking waste from landfills rather than a formal collection system, according to a new industry report.
The country's plastics recycling rate dropped from 22.5% in 2014 to 20.8%, according to a 1 June report from the trade group Plastics|SA.
“Analysts agree that 2015 was one of the toughest years for recyclers both locally and abroad in more than a generation, owing to historically low oil prices that led to lower polymer prices,” said Executive Director Anton Hanekom, in a statement.
“This in turn had a direct impact on the price of recycled material, which resulted in minimal growth and a slowdown in the amount of plastics we are able to divert from landfill.”
It said 310,000 tonnes of plastics were diverted from landfills last year, out of total domestic production of nearly 1.5 million tonnes.
Before the drop, the country's plastics recycling rate had been rising since 2009, when it was 17.2%, according to Plastics|SA, which is based near Johannesburg. The recycling industry had been growing 5.5% a year for the last five years, the group said.
The trade association called on South Africa's government to take a much bigger role, both in building curbside collection infrastructure and in expanding a voluntary fee on plastics packaging producers to support recycling.
In its report, Plastics|SA said the biggest challenge facing companies recycling plastic or using recycled materials in their products is the lack of consistent quality from what is collected. It said that's caused in large part by how the materials are collected, by people trying to make a living picking waste from waste dumps.
“A large quantity of the materials that were made available for recycling was recovered by waste pickers off landfill sites, where they were contaminated and therefore of very poor quality,” the report said.
In one province, where it said demand for recyclable materials exceeded supply, up to 40% of the material still had to be rejected because of impurities.
“This clearly highlights the need for an effective separation-at-source infrastructure to be implemented throughout the country,” Hanekom said. “Our main drive is to get government to implement separation at source infrastructure and services.”
“Our waste [for recycling] is coming from the landfills where it is contaminated and dirty,” he said, in an email to Plastics News. “We spend a lot of money in washing and drying the waste. Education and awareness programs on a national level will also assist in the process.”
Plastics|SA also credited the introduction of an industry-funded extended producer responsibility system for boosting recycling, where the plastics industry collects voluntary fees from packaging makers to support recycling.
But Hanekom added that because it's not mandatory, some packaging convertors and plastic product manufacturers do not pay the fees, which work out to between $7 to $25 per tonne. That's a point Plastics|SA said it wants to change.
“We need government support to take care of the free-riders and to get them to contribute,” he said. “We have seen huge growth in the number of plastic waste recycled since the creation of the Polymer Groups [EPR].”
Plastics|SA said that the country's plastics recycling companies employed 6,234 people in permanent jobs, with 48,800 people working in the informal sector.
It said that processing costs for recycling rose 15.4% last year, on higher costs for water, electricity and transport.