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Science of Recycling Series: How does the plastic recycling industry work?

There’s a lot of hype about plastic. But I’m not going to try to convince you to recycle because I think we’ve all heard enough about it, but rather, I’d like to give you more insight into how the plastic recycling industry works.

The system rests upon a nifty piece of policy called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which says that producers are responsible for collecting and processing their manufactured products upon the end of their lifetime. I.e. a soft drink company is compelled to collect and recycle the plastic bottle which a consumer of their drink throws away. This makes sense because consumers buy a soft drink to consume the drink, not the plastic bottle – therefore the thrown away plastic bottle can be seen as the waste of the soft drink company.

However, the producers of bottles are not necessarily experts of waste management, so instead of recycling the bottles themselves, they are allowed to contribute financially to initiatives such as PETCO which buys back the bottles from collectors. This system creates a market for waste plastic, on which over 58,000 people depend.

If you are using a company to collect your recyclables, that company will likely take it to their sorting facility where waste pickers will separate out the bottles (among other things), and then sell them to a buy-back center. They will get paid approx. R2/kg of plastic bottles, which means that they would need to collect about 1500 bottles to earn R100.

The buy-back centers will then sell the plastic bottles to a recycling facility for about R4.50/kg - which is financed by PETCO. The bottles will then be melted down into plastic pellets, and sold on to plastic factories.

During this time of low economic growth, the demand for plastic pellets is low, affecting the whole value chain. But South Africa benefits from the low exchange rate by exporting 18% of diverted plastic waste, mainly to China.

As we head into the holiday season, we’re about to buy a lot of things with a lot of packaging. The system for recycling is there – it is up to us to use it.


State of Waste SA, 2019, 2nd Draft

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