Circle of virtue

Corporates are moving towards creating operations that are more reformative and regenerative

Circle of virtue

In November 2021, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment implemented new Section 18 Regulations to the Waste Act, namely mandatory extended user responsibility (EPR). According to Cheri Scholtz, CEO of PETCO, this means that ‘producers must assume responsibility for their products up to, and including, the end-of-life stage of their product cycle. The producer for packaging is either the brand owner of the products using the packaging, the retailer – in the case of house brands, or the importer of goods contained in packaging’. She adds that SA’s legislation ‘moved from voluntary to mandatory EPR amid increasing consumer and governmental pressure on brands to ensure end-of-life solutions for their products beyond consumer use’.

Previously voluntary, EPR was overseen by various PROs (such as PETCO), and while this hasn’t changed exactly, what has changed is that any company or brand that makes or imports any form of plastic packaging for distribution is required to pay an EPR fee per ton, as well as adhere to strict targets set by government for yearly collection and recycling, which need to be met over the next five years.

‘Using the EPR fees entrusted to us, we are working to increase paper collection and recycling programmes across South Africa,’ says Edith Leeuta, CEO of Fibre Circle, a PRO established by the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa. ‘Fibre Circle collaborates with paper and paper-packaging stakeholders to further enhance the circular and renewable nature of paper fibre. We also seek to empower the informal recycling sector, develop markets for recycled paper fibre and process waste through research, innovation and enterprise development.’

SA has had recycling rates higher than global averages for years. In 2021, the country achieved a 61.4% paper recovery rate, down from 69.8% in 2020. However, Leeuta notes, this doesn’t mean the country is recycling less paper. In fact, more paper products were produced and used in 2021, and marginally more paper was collected in 2021 (1.15 million tons) than in 2020 (1.10 million tons). The average for the past five years sits at 68%, well above the global average of 59.3%.

SA is a global leader in plastics recycling. For example, the country recorded an input recycling rate of 43.2 % in 2020; while the plastics recycling rate in the US fell from 8.7% in 2018 to 5% to 6% in 2021.

However, the country’s landfill sites are still stretched to capacity, with the waste-management industry warning that SA is dangerously close to ‘day zero’, while ‘the impact of the pandemic saw a significant rise in the utilisation of single-use plastics, as well as a decline in collection and recycling rates, and has created a massive increase in the use and disposal of PPE waste’, says Kate Stubbs, marketing director at waste-management company Interwaste. ‘All of which is contributing to a mounting problem.’

The need to improve waste-management practices and institute circular-waste economies – in which recycling plays a critical role – has never been more urgent. While gains have been made, a culture of recycling has not yet taken hold in the consciousness of the SA public, making the need for government regulations and big-business buy-in essential to drive innovation and efficiencies, and bring to life the circular economies that promise both reduced waste and significant economic upliftment for the country’s poorest.

Indeed, a ‘carrot and stick’ approach may prove to be the winning formula, the ‘stick’ being legal requirements – in the form of ESG criteria and EPR, for example – and the ‘carrot’, potential commercial profitability.

‘While South African legislation has traditionally driven environmental innovation, and while this is certainly still the case today, ESG coupled with a real environmental conscience is taking centre stage, and corporates are quickly beginning to realise the value of not only effective waste management but, essentially, the opportunities that waste can present to their business, corporate targets, and the communities that they serve,’ says Stubbs.

‘We have seen various levels of success with the banning of certain waste types from landfill disposal. Once you ban waste from landfill, you are forced to innovate, so we have seen many innovations come about. While legislation from government is crucial for the overall management of waste, sustainability strategies, environmental goals and ESG ratings, which are being applied by many businesses, are also important and help drive buy-in and a shift in thinking and operating.’

One of the biggest challenges – or advantages, depending on your viewpoint – to improving recycling rates in SA is the uniqueness of the country’s circumstances. Blanket solutions that have worked for other countries, cannot be applied – SA needs to create its own.

‘In order to address the South African conditions you need to look at the local context and develop solutions that will fit our culture, infrastructure, socio-economic conditions and size of the problem,’ says Anton Hanekom, executive director of plastics industry representative body Plastics SA.

‘Developed countries have well-established and enforced separation at source; recyclables are collected and transported to material-recovery facilities where they are further sorted for recycling, incineration, export and so on. In South Africa, 39% of our population does not even have waste-management services provided. Mixed waste is collected and sent to landfills, so we need to collect post-consumer waste mainly from landfills for recycling.’ This collection also incurs additional costs as waste needs to be washed before it is recycled.

Developed countries use infrared technology to sort their waste, while in SA, this task is performed by people. SA doesn’t have waste-to-energy facilities, as in Europe, for example, and it does not have sufficient resources, knowledge and funding to implement developed-world practices. ‘These are just some examples of the differences and why it is critical to look for regional and local South African solutions,’ says Hanekom.

‘In Europe and the UK, flexible material – plastic bags, pallet wraps, and so on – is a big problem as they do not have facilities to recycle it, hence there are often calls to ban it. In South Africa, it’s the material with the highest recycling volume. If we enforce a ban, it will mean a large number of recycling facilities being closed and loss of jobs; there will be a negative impact on informal waste pickers; and many products that used this recycled flexible material before will need to use virgin material.’

In the move to implement more profound and appropriate waste-reduction measures, there is a consensus that, while useful for driving change, government legislation is not enough – the private sector has to take recycling seriously, building the ethos and practicalities of a circular-waste economy into company policies and objectives, rather than merely complying with recycling targets.

‘There are numerous solutions available to the private sector that are under-utilised,’ says Stubbs. ‘We need to re-look at what recycling typically means and how recycling in its traditional form needs to be reconsidered and elevated to meet the waste demands in the country. The answer? Circular-economy thinking – and action. A circular-economy model offers significant opportunities to deliver on more inclusive economic growth, which includes job opportunities and positive environmental practices that are desperately needed for sustainability in the country. The concept is based on designing waste out of the value chain, reducing the consumption of energy and raw materials,’ she says.

‘In instances where there is excess, we need to allow for these materials, energy and resources to be “fed” back into the cycle. Through such thinking, we can reuse, repurpose and recycle waste in various ways for use in other areas of industry and the economy – ultimately reducing reliance on landfills and turning waste into a positive economic contributor. This creates not just an opportunity for further cost savings or revenue generators, but also – very critically – protecting the environment. It is then crucial that the private sector not only is accountable for its waste, but shifts its thinking from a linear process – take-make-dispose – towards a more inclusive and circular model, with disposal being the last resort.’

Which begs the question: what is big business doing to clean up its act? Perhaps one of the most impressive steps towards creating a circular economy in plastic waste is the SA Plastics Pact, founded in January 2020 by Clicks Group, Danone, Distell, HomeChoice, Massmart, Myplas, Pick n Pay, Shoprite Group, Spar, Spur Corporation, the Foschini Group, Tiger Brands, Unilever and Woolworths, among others, and which binds members to an ambitious commitment to create a circular economy for plastics by 2025.

NPO GreenCape has been tasked with keeping signatories to the pact accountable, requiring them to report on their plastic-packaging portfolio on an annual basis.

‘In addition to ensuring that 100% of packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, the pact also requires the elimination of unnecessary and problematic packaging through redesign, innovation or reuse models; that 70% of plastic packaging is effectively recycled, and that there is an average of 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging by 2025,’ says Clicks managing executive Vikash Singh.

As part of its commitment to the pact, Clicks has introduced ongoing reduction of packaging and plastic content in a number of its product categories, 100% recyclable and recycled content in all Clicks shopper and pharmacy bags, and various product innovations, such as plastic-free lip balm and deodorant packaging made from paper. In addition, Clicks has implemented ongoing Forest Stewardship-certified recycled content in all paper packaging.

‘Our packaging technologists and designers undergo training on designing with the environment in mind,’ says Singh. ‘They are all actively involved in industry meetings on a monthly basis to tackle environmental concerns and to drive the need for innovation with the packaging industry and product manufacturers.’

Another signatory, Danone, has partnered with Interwaste to implement their One Desk, One Child project, which looks at the upcycling of polystyrene yoghurt cups, turning them into desks or bricks for early childhood development centres to help maintain social distancing and a healthier learning environment for each student.

Unilever has stepped up its use of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) to around 75 000 tons globally. In SA, PCR provides 15% of Unilever SA’s plastic footprint. This is a significant increase from 2019, and solid progress towards its goal to use at least 25% PCR by 2025.

The Foschini Group recycled 90% of its textile waste in 2021, according to its sustainability report, while 100% of its plastic waste was reusable, recyclable or compostable.

About nine years ago, Anglo American’s platinum business set itself an ambitious task of sending zero waste to landfill by the end of 2020. At the time, its annual figure was 22.12 kilotons; by 2020, that was reduced to 1.76 kilotons for the entire year, with all managed operations reaching the zero target by the end of December for the first time.

‘We’re certainly starting to see a shift in strategies and a strong drive towards creating more reformative, restorative and regenerative systems,’ according to Stubbs. ‘I believe more businesses will start examining ways to design waste out of their economic system – and this is where the real impact will be made and felt.’

By Robyn Maclarty
Image: Gallo/Getty Images