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South Africa leads Africa’s circular plastics industry

Compared to Europe and North America, plastics recycling in Africa is still in its infancy. But change is on the way, says Carolina Perujo Holland, analyst plastic recycling at commodity research body ICIS, who is encouraged by the recycling initiatives popping up across the African continent.

Waste management is currently one of the main challenges faced by the African recycled polymer supply chain. Population growth rates are over 2% per year and the consequent increase in consumption of plastic packaging makes this the largest fraction of waste after organic, which brings more urgency to the waste management challenges. Most of Africa’s population has no access to kerbside collection nor a formal waste collection system and relies heavily on waste pickers in the informal sector for waste collection and sorting. According to industry estimates 90% of waste still ends up in landfill or illegal dumping sites and some of it is burned in the open.

The big four

Thirty-four African governments have implemented or are planning to implement different types of plastic bans, many of these targeting plastic bags, to tackle the rise in plastic waste generation. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) initiatives in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria are also encouraging, with the most recent EPR scheme in South Africa applying to all companies importing or manufacturing plastic packaging for distribution from May 2021. In some quarters, brands have often taken action and led these types of bans and EPR schemes.

Brands taking the lead

Recycled content targets for plastic packaging set by legislation in specific regions, coupled with consumer pressure, have pushed brands who operate in multiple regions to set sustainability pledges at a global level.

Now, these fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands are also looking for supplies of high-quality recycled plastic in Africa, particularly for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) packaging.

The ICIS Mechanical Recycling Supply Tracker has identified just under 50 mechanical plastic recycling plants for PET, PE and PP in Africa with a total capacity of over 370 000 tonnes per year for post-consumer and post-industrial waste feedstocks. 55% of the recycling capacity is allocated to recycling PET and the bulk of the polyolefin recycling capacity is allocated to PE. However, in 2020, production of recycled PET, PE and PP represented only 3% of total virgin and recycled PET, PE and PP consumption in the region. The African plastic recycling industry is very fractured and fluid, with players entering and exiting the market frequently.

Lack of end markets

End markets for the different grades of recycled plastic are also less well established in the region, further slowing the growth of the industry. Due to the lack of such end markets, the majority of recyclers located in the northern part of Africa export much of their recycled product to Europe where demand for recyclate is much higher than in the domestic market. High quality recycled plastics require high quality post-consumer waste feedstocks.

In Africa, 81% of PET, 49% of PE and 67% of PP capacity is from post-consumer feedstock. Food and beverage brands looking to meet their sustainability targets need the highest quality food grade recycled material, suitable for food contact applications. Most PET in Africa is recycled from beverage bottles, although this currently feeds mainly into the domestic fibre industry. 

There are three PET recyclers in Morocco, Egypt and South Africa with US Food and Drug Administration Letter of No Objection and EU European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) positive opinions, processing 21% of post-consumer PET feedstocks in the region. Planned expansions in 2021 and 2022 will see food grade recycled PET (r-PET) capacity increase by up to 40 000 tonnes/year, looking to meet the demand for high quality recyclates from both inside and outside the region.

China ban impact

Up until 2018, Africa was a net exporter of plastic waste with China being the number one destination. In January 2018, China implemented its National Sword policy banning imports of plastic waste into the country. Since then, plastic waste exports from Africa have dropped: 2019 volumes only 45% of what was exported in 2017, and 17% in 2020. Access to this plastic waste is an opportunity to develop the plastic recycling industry within the region rather than the current focus on external trade. Investment in infrastructure will help to improve collection and sorting, increase recycling capacity and build end markets for recyclates in the domestic market.

Destination Europe?

The European recycling market is facing a shortage of quality feedstock material and draws African recycled polymer suppliers to be net exporters. However, the recycled material must still meet quality and traceability requirements of such markets. In meeting the quality standards for export markets, this will naturally help develop the value of African recycling materials and markets.

South Africa is often viewed as the most developed country in the region for circular plastics,  largely due to the close collaboration across the plastics industry which often takes the lead in finding solutions. The ICIS Recycling Supply Tracker has identified just under 20 PET, PE and PP recycling plants in the country, the highest number in any African country, followed by Nigeria and Egypt. South Africa was also the first country to have a food grade PET recycler with EFSA positive opinion in 2015.

Job for Petco

Due to to South Africa’s southern position and trade to other regions has not been as attractive, unlike Egypt and Morocco, the focus has been on the domestic recycling market . South Africa has tended to lead the region in working towards a circular economy. PET Recycling Company (Petco) is an example of industry led collaboration in South Africa, co-created and funded by industry members including Coca-Cola.

Established in 2004, Petco took on the role of EPR for the South African PET industry involving brands, retailers, converters, producers, consumers and recyclers. The voluntary EPR fee supported PET recycling by investing in infrastructure, collection and recycling PET waste. In 2019, South Africa achieved a 62% collection rate for PET bottles, up from 24% in 2007.

Role model South Africa

Seeing the benefits of the initiative and effective supply chain outcome, other countries in the region are looking at South Africa as an example to apply best practices in their local markets. Petco models have been established in Kenya in 2018, Ethiopia in 2019, Tanzania in March 2021 and with future plans in Uganda.

In January 2020, South Africa launched the SA Plastics Pact following the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s initiative. Members from the plastics industry collaborate to achieve a circular economy for plastic packaging by having four targets by 2025: reducing problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging; 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable; 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled; and 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging. Collaboration with the plastics industry has shown to bring about the fastest growth and has become the chosen strategy to develop the recycling industry in Africa.

Brands have realised that widespread collection of plastic waste is necessary to ensure sufficient good quality recycled product to meet their sustainability targets. Companies such as Coca Cola, Dow, Nestlé, Diageo and Unilever have launched initiatives with a local focus to improve waste collection in a region where there is very little access to a formal waste management system.

The informal sector waste pickers are crucial to the African recycling industry and must be incorporated and supported in any solutions in its development. With more investment, the recycling industry will be able to take advantage of the large volumes of plastic waste available.

Source: Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS)

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