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High hopes for PET recycling in South Africa – despite lost capacity

In 2019, no less than 62% of all plastic bottles produced in South Africa were collected for recycling – 2% down from 2018, according to latest statistics from the PET Recycling Company (PETCO), the sector’s non-profit producer responsibility organisation.

Despite global market contractions and impact of Covid-19, South Africa’s PET plastic recycling value chain has kept ‘its wheels turning’, says PETCO, delivering ‘another positive annual recycling rate while creating thousands of jobs for informal reclaimers who returned to work under level three of the national lockdown’.

Good and bad news

Last year, almost 96 000 tonnes of post-consumer PET bottles were collected, ‘which would otherwise have occupied 594 000 cubic metres of landfill space and produced 144 000 tonnes of carbon emissions, says PETCO.

Apart from these environmental benefits, PET recycling generated 66 000 paid jobs among informal collectors and small businesses, with EUR 60 million injected into the downstream economy via the manufacturing, distribution and sale of products made from rPET, it is stressed.

While the overall 2% year-on-year decrease in volume was disappointing, it was as good as could be expected, given the significant loss of installed capacity following the closure of one of the country’s six PET recyclers, according to PETCO ceo Cheri Scholtz.  ‘The closure of Mpact Polymers has had a significant impact on our capacity to recycle, with the remaining recyclers unable to pick up the slack as they were already operating at maximum capacity in the fourth quarter.’

Finding the right balance

On a positive note, Scholtz said the tonnage of rPET sold in South Africa – close to 24 000 tonnes – was similar to 2018, reflecting both the improving output at the remaining recyclers, as well as the increasing demand for rPET. ‘This shows that consumers and brand owners are starting to take their product packaging’s ‘green credentials’ seriously,’ she argues, adding that light-weighting of bottles had also contributed to the decrease in collected tonnages of PET. ‘Light-weighting, or not using more material than is necessary, is an important environmental step but our challenge is to encourage right-weighting, which is about finding the balance within the circular economy.’

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