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Time for plastics sector to put its money where its mouth is

Plastic recycling rates are stagnating and that’s even before you factor in the impact of Covid-19, writes Lorren de Kock.

The latest recycling figures for 2019 from the Plastics SA recycling survey have been published with virtually no change compared to 2018. At first, I thought this was only due to the Covid-19 situation, considering the focus there has been on sustainability at various organisations and sectors in the plastics value chain. However, to my surprise the period audited was from January to December 2019, before the pandemic struck.

Looking at the last 10 years, the compound annual growth rate of recycling tonnage has been around 4,5% off a low base of 228 000 tonnes with an increase of 124 000 tonnes up to 2019. The rate of growth of virgin plastic tonnages converted in South Africa was 2% over the same 10 years with an increase of 255 000 tonnes off a base of 1,25 million tonnes.

At current rates, it will take more than 20 years just to double the current percentage of plastic being recycled – with more than 750 000 tonnes of plastics currently going to landfill or leaking into the environment each year.

This makes the industry organisation Plastics SA’s target of “Zero waste to landfill by 2030” totally unrealistic, given the current trends.  

Plastics SA cites economic challenges faced by the industry in 2019 to explain the dropping recycling rates for some polymer types. In previous years and even now, plastic industry bodies and Producer Responsibility Organisations talk about the need for separation at source and more infrastructure (such as Material Recovery Facilities and recycling facilities).

The focus is and has been on the supply side (informal and formal waste collectors, some collection and recycling infrastructure), but stimulating the demand side and investing in this area of the value chain is completely lacking in South Africa.

If supply side is the issue then why did the two biggest recyclers in South Africa close shop last year (MPact PET recycling and Transpaco Recycling)? Surely, if there is a demand for this secondary product and willingness to buy recyclate then this will lead to more investment in infrastructure and higher collection rates?

Frankly, the plastics industry lobbyists and spokes-persons are avoiding the elephant in the room: that plastic recycling is not economically feasible and does not support the business objective of virgin producers to sell more virgin plastic.

For example, plastics produced at Sasol are a by-product of the coal-to-liquid production process and the company already receives significant fuel subsidies and carbon tax exemptions boosting its profit by almost $500 million in 2019. Plastic profits are therefore important to the local chemical industry and the majority shareholder – the government pension fund. Therefore, the plastics industry will never admit the inherent failures of recycling but rather use other messaging to ensure that the unsustainable production and consumption of plastics continues unchecked.

Since the 1970s, when plastic litter and debris started coming to the attention of consumers, recycling has been put forward as the silver bullet to solve the problem. Various mechanisms and messages were used to assure the public that ALL plastic can be recycled. This was done by placing a confusing set of seven resin codes (with the recycling symbol and a number inside from one to seven) on some plastic products and packaging to entrench the perception that all is recycled. This is very far from true.

Industry lobbyists have used elaborate advertising and narratives, not only to mislead the public around recycling but also to place the blame for plastic pollution squarely on the consumer. If you ask any person on the street what they think is the reason for all the plastic packaging polluting the environment, even school-going children (and I can attest to this) most will simply say that people must not litter, we must recycle more – and it is our fault.

For decades, the global plastics industry has entrenched this narrative through marketing, public relations and consumer campaigns, shifting sole accountability to the consumer, and in the case of South Africa, to government.

Another argument used to defend the industry position is that virgin plastic has a lower carbon footprint than any other material, even recycled plastic. Promising alternative delivery models for products such as re-use and refill has come under fire by the plastics industry as having a higher carbon footprint than the products packaged in plastic.

Most people would simply accept this but experts in life cycle assessment (LCA), say that the end of life impacts of plastics in the environment on biodiversity, the economy and even on human health have not been taken into account in the LCA and are expected to be higher than other materials.

And then there’s the oil price.

Virgin plastic production is directly linked to the oil price. British Petroleum and other oil companies have forecast a long-term decline in oil consumption and say global oil demand will never again regain the levels seen in 2019 due to stronger climate action in countries, declining energy consumption and the pandemic. Therefore, to ensure the economic viability of the fossil fuel and oil companies, substantial investments of hundreds of billions of USD, into new plastic and chemical facilities and projects are being made.

With virgin material getting cheaper and staying cheap, as per the findings of the big oil companies, along with more investment in more plastic production, we should expect that recycling will become even less feasible. Expect to see some shocking recycling rates in South Africa and globally going forward if the producers higher up the value chain don’t start investing heavily in this sector.

A source who prefers to remain anonymous and involved in public-private partnerships said: “Everyone talks recycling, but no-one is prepared to pay for it. It takes a lot more effort to produce quality recycled material than to produce it from oil. Therefore, it should come at a premium and not at a discount to virgin material if you require the same quality as virgin.”

The price differential has meant that brand owners and retailers, who are the largest consumers of plastics for fast-moving consumer goods, are not buying recycled plastic. The price of post-consumer recycled plastic includes the costs to collect, sort and process this material. And on top of that the operational costs of labour, electricity and many others.

This also means that brand owners and organisations that have made voluntary commitments to increase recycled content in their products and packaging will not be able to meet those commitments due to economic reasons. An international study has found that some of the largest brand owners are failing to make progress towards voluntary commitments to increase recycled content and design more circular packaging. 

So where do we go from here? 

According to recently published research, a combination of interventions at each life cycle stage of plastic is needed to address the plastic pollution crisis, and this includes most importantly a reduction in production and consumption, substitution with alternative materials, more investment and support for recycling (mechanical and chemical) and appropriate disposal at end of life.

We have all the know-how and technology. If only the hundreds of billions of US dollars that large oil and petrochemical companies are willing to spend on expanding virgin plastic production could be invested into end-of-life activities such as recycling, imagine the opportunities and resulting cleaner environment.

If the industry says recycling is the solution, then why are they not investing in it – stimulating both the supply and demand side to make it more competitive with virgin plastic?

It’s time that all involved in the plastics sector in South Africa (and by that I mean producers, convertors, brand owners and retailers) took action –  not talk and PR but real action – to reinvigorate the recycling sector and to find real solutions.

*Lorren de Kock is the Project Manager: Circular Plastics Economy with WWF South Africa and co-author of the recently released WWF Plastics Facts & Futures Report. This is a version of an article first published by the Daily Maverick.

© Milos Bicanski WWF UK
Plastic pollution leaks into our oceans and onto our beaches

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