Africa can conquer the waste problem with partnerships and co-operation

Tshidi Ramogase

The world’s plastic packaging waste problem can be solved. That is the good news. This, however, will require multi-industry humility and collaboration and not competition, as well as intentional and resolute government intervention to level the playing field and create an enabling circular economy environment. There are many areas where it makes sense for industry to compete, but environmental protection and waste management in particular is not one of these areas.

In fact, around the globe, leading consumer goods companies, such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, Pepsi, Adidas and H&M, have set ambitious targets for recycling and the use of recycled content, while governments the world over are putting in place measures that ensure industry responds with the requisite sense of urgency. In the PET sector (polyethylene terephthalate), this has seen the demand for plastic bottle feedstock for recycling beginning to outstrip the supply.

Coca-Cola and its bottling partners have committed to a 100% recycling rate and 50% recycled content in PET bottles by 2030, as part of their World Without Waste strategy, and the other companies listed here have similar ambitions.

A McKinsey report (How plastics waste recycling could transform the chemical industry, December 20181), estimates that given the targets that have been set by industry worldwide, almost 60% of global plastics production could be from recycling and re-use by 2050, while the use of virgin plastic would decline to 40% of total PET consumption. This is good news because it means reduced consumption of virgin material, therefore, reduced extraction and use of natural resources enabling a sustainable future.

Based on the estimated pre-Covid global PET consumption of 25 million tonnes, this would mean a need to develop and set up close to 11.8 million tonnes per annum of recycled PET globally, and the scale of the challenge, relative to the size of the market, is similar in Africa.

For example, based on the estimated pre-Covid PET consumption of 215 000 tonnes, South Africa alone would need to recycle 82 000 tonnes a year to meet the country’s demand for food-grade recycled PET at 50%, indicating an estimated shortfall of 50 000 tonnes. Currently with an installed recycled PET capacity of 33 000 tonnes, SA recyclers only managed to supply around 18 000 tonnes of recycled PET, which falls short of the SA recycled PET demand. This shortage in recycled PET supply in 2021 was a result of the shortage in PET bottle feedstock. 

Solving this supply and demand challenge requires greater levels of co-operation at all levels between governments, packaging producers, brand owners, retailers and consumers.

Globally, there has to be a single standard for food-grade recycled PET so that recyclers can invest efficiently in equipment and the development of new technology, rather than having to cater to different standards for different businesses and customers.

In Africa and other developing markets, there is an additional layer of complexity, in that the market for recycled plastic in many countries is too small to support investment in recycling plants, yet the rules governing the movement of plastic waste across borders inhibit the economies of scale needed to achieve optimal rates of recycling, limit waste going to landfill, and create employment in the circular economy.

At a minimum investment of about R250 million, a recycling plant needs to produce  at least 12 000 tonnes of recycled PET a year to be viable, and the global gold standard is up to 50 000 tonnes. This requires access to at least 20 000 tonnes of used beverage bottles a year, while in a country like Namibia for example, the total beverage PET market is only 5 300 tonnes. With better regional co-operation, it would be possible to convert plastic bottles into washed flakes in Namibia, return it to South Africa for recycling into recycled PET, and supply both the local SA market and surrounding markets with recycled material. This means some cross border Extended Producer Responsibility may be required, as well as multi-government engagement and collaboration. This cross-border feedstock supply would also enable sustained operations of recycling plants and supply of recycled PET in South Africa. 

The SADC region is working towards this goal, and the same model could be replicated in the rest of the continent, with mega regional recycling plants established in Kenya or Uganda for East Africa, and Ghana and Nigeria for West Africa as well as in Ethiopia. This would create the scale required to attract the investment we need in recycling capacity to meet our joint industry targets.

The model is based on the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility, in which producers declare the volumes of plastic placed in the market, and pay a commensurate fee to a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO), such as PETCO in South Africa. The PRO then funds the activities related to the recovery and recycling of the packaging substrate, making the used packaging material valuable enough to inspire collection and stimulating packaging circular end use demand to enhance packaging circularity.

The model has been so successful since PETCO was established in South Africa, growing from collection and recycling of 9 000 tonnes of PET in 2005 to more than 82 000 tonnes in 2020, that it is now being rolled out to eight other African countries.

The big remaining hurdle is to stimulate much higher rates of collection throughout the continent, and this is where more co-operation will make a decisive difference.

Today in South Africa, the challenge with local feedstock supply remains, leading to under-utilisation of existing recycling plant capacity and undersupply of recycled PET to meet the local demand. In an effort to unlock local PET bottle feedstock and recapacitate local waste pickers, Coca-Cola SA and Coca-Cola Beverages Africa (CCBA) funded collectors in South Africa with close to R9m last year in partnership with PETCO and ARO (Africa Recycling Organisation). The funds were used to subsidise collector transport costs, working capital and infrastructure. Knowing that many other similar organisations are also investing in similar initiatives, imagine how much further we could go as an industry if we were to co-ordinate our efforts in this space for enhanced circular economy and social impact.

Too few consumers are aware of the need to recycle or the benefits of doing so, and the infrastructure needed to facilitate higher rates of recycling is woefully inadequate.

The first part of this problem can be addressed through a mass awareness campaign, drawing in stakeholders across government and industry, to drive a culture change at a national and continental level. Such a campaign should transcend individual packaging waste streams, material promotion campaigns, or value chains, and focus on changing the mindset of consumers when it comes to waste of any kind and mobilising consumers to act. The example of the LoveLife HIV/Aids awareness campaign in South Africa comes to mind. 

Consumers and their handling of packaging, post consumption is a critical missing link. After all, no packaging throws itself in the river or on the ground.  Responsible handling of packaging post consumption is very much a consumer mindset problem, and this is a real problem that requires a deliberate, well-orchestrated, multi packaging substrate, multi stakeholder agenda. This includes using media assets such as national broadcasters, to send the message home and drive a massive consumer mindset change. 

This would eliminate the current unnecessary duplication and confusion of messages on waste recycling and promote anti-litter culture while ensuring maximum impact.

Secondly, we need to make it far easier to recycle, both at home and in public places. Collection points should become part of the design process in the construction of new shopping centres and living space for example, and municipalities need to step up their support for recycling by providing recycling bins wherever they are needed and collecting recyclable materials more regularly and separated from other non-recyclable waste.

At the moment, none of this is happening at remotely the level required.

Finally, far more of our packaging needs to be recyclable and reusable. This ensures that we reduce consumption of natural resources by recycling what we extract and reusing the packaging we put out there more often.

At CCBA, over 20% of our revenues are already coming from returnable or refillable packs. We are strategically looking to increase the use of homogenous returnable packs. We have also already made over 95% of our packaging recyclable, and are tracking well with our efforts to meet the 100% recycling rate by, or before, 2030.

While most large producers have moved in this direction, retail chains – where consumers buy most of their packaged goods – have a critical gatekeeping role to encourage suppliers to do more. They have the power to make producers supply them with products packaged in predominantly recyclable and reusable packaging and make recycling both easier and more rewarding for consumers.

The opportunity in the circular economy is huge. It could help to solve Africa’s waste and unemployment challenges, stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation, and ensure a better future for all. There is a lot of work to be done, but a World Without Waste is within reach. We have to see beyond our own business, substrate and industry interest and put the environment first.

*Ramogase is the CCBA Group Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability Director and Chairperson of PETCO


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