Q&A: POLYCO - JSE MAGAZINE

Q&A: POLYCO

POLYCO CEO Mandy Naudé on job creation, diverting plastics from landfill and getting every municipality in SA involved in collecting waste

Q&A: POLYCO

Q: POLYCO is a voluntary organisation that self-regulates the industry. How did it come about?
A: POLYCO, the Polyolefin Recycling Company NPC, was originally formed in 2011 to promote the recycling of polyolefin plastics and diversion of plastic from landfill throughout SA. The country’s polyolefin plastics industry needed to demonstrate that it is capable of and committed to meeting government’s environmental expectations in managing post-consumer waste as legislated. It represents the largest plastic packaging polymer group in SA, and is funded through the collection of a voluntary recycling levy of R110 for every ton of polyolefin polymer purchased from Sasol and Safripol or imported by the packaging converters. Current members of the association include Afripack, Astrapak, Boxmore, Bowler Plastics, Huhtamaki, Mpact Plastics, MCG Industries, Nampak and Polyoak Packaging.Our job is to ensure that industry players act responsibly and participate in the growth and awareness of plastics recycling, to help shape its outcomes and achieve the paper and packaging industry’s Waste Management Plan targets as a material responsibility organisation (MRO).

Q: How much plastic waste is generated in SA every year?
A: According to the latest recycling results released earlier this year by PlasticsSA, a total of 1.4 million tons of plastics, both from domestic production and imported materials, were converted in SA in 2014. Of this, 315 600 tons of plastics (22.5%) were diverted from landfill in 2014 – this is an increase of 9% from 2013. An impressive amount of 284 520 tons (90.2 %) of the 315 600 tons of plastics diverted from landfill, were mechanically recycled in SA. Only 31 087 tons (9.8 %) were exported for recycling elsewhere.

Q: One of the problems with plastic recycling is the multitude of different types, which creates much confusion in the public’s mind. What, in simple terms, are the main differences between them?
A: There are seven different kinds of plastics – each with its own unique polymer composition and attributes that make it ideal for certain uses and applications. As each of these types of plastic behave differently when melted, they cannot be recycled together. Plastic packaging has polymer identification codes that tell the collectors and recyclers what type of plastic they are dealing with. Although this can seem very technical and confusing, the good news is that the consumer doesn’t need to know all of this or be concerned about sorting their plastics. Instead, the recycling industry has made it easy and hassle-free for end users by enabling them to put all their plastics – regardless of the type – into one recycling bag.

Q: POLYCO deals with identification codes 2, 4 and 5 only. Why is that?
A: POLYCO was formed to look after the recycling of polyolefins plastics specifically. These are plastics that carry the polymer identification code 2 (high-density polyethylene or HDPE), code 4 (linear low-density or low-density polyethylene or LLDPE/LDPE) or code 5 (polypropylene or PP), and, in SA, they comprise around 70% of plastics packaging. Due to them typically being the tougher and sturdier types of plastics, such as are commonly used in packaging applications for detergent bottles, milk bottles or margarine and ice-cream tubs, these thicker plastics are resilient and 100% recyclable.

‘Simplicity and convenience are the most important factors in trying to change people’s behaviour and turn them into recyclers’

However, POLYCO is not the only MRO in the plastics industry. For example, PETCO has been promoting the recovery and recycling of PET bottles for the last 10 years, while the Southern African Vinyls Association encourages the recycling of products made from PVC, and the Polystyrene Packaging Council drives polystyrene recycling projects around the country. Each of these associations operate as the extended producer responsibility arm for the plastics industry by getting membership buy-in from plastic producers and spending those funds on worthy recycling initiatives that increase the recycling rate of their specific type of plastics. We all work closely with our sister organisations, Packaging SA and PlasticsSA, as well as the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation.

Q: A major part of POLYCO’S agenda is to create jobs in the recycling chain. How has it done this? How successful have these programmes been?
A: Since POLYCO began its operations, we have already invested more than R21.5 million in various separation, collection, sorting and recycling projects around the country in a bid to increase the recycling rate of polyolefin plastics. This has had a direct impact on employment, as the companies that we have partnered with were able to expand and grow their operations. More people needed to be employed in order to help these firms collect, sort and recycle their plastics. The official statistics released by PlasticsSA for 2014 have shown that the formal employment provided by plastics recycling has increased by 34% to 6 037 workers, and informal employment has increased to 47 420. The total number of jobs sustained through plastics recycling has increased year-on-year by 11.4% to 53 457. Not only are jobs created but it also encourages the development of SMMEs in the recycling industry.

Q: Is it true that the vast majority of waste is generated by industry? Should most recycling efforts therefore be directed towards industry? Why involve the public at all?
A: No, that is not true. The 284 520 tons of plastics recycled locally in 2014 were sourced from both pre-consumer and post-consumer sources. Of this, the smallest amount of waste (6%) was in-house recycling, 14% ex-factory waste, and 17% post-industrial waste. By far the largest source of plastic waste therefore continues to be post-consumer materials (63%), which is where the most work and education is needed. Ex-factory and post-industrial waste often comprises clean, good quality materials that are uncontaminated, which is why it is in high demand from recyclers. By contrast, only 10% of South Africans recycle their household waste. Very few municipali-ties have a two-bag or kerbside collection system in place, in which case we rely on South Africans to take their recyclables to a drop-off site or school that collects recyclables. Getting access to this waste stream is of vital importance to the recycling industry as demand for materials currently outweighs supply.

Q: Should industrial recycling be compulsory in SA? Should companies be mandated by law to recycle?
A: All the big manufacturers in SA currently recycle their waste. What POLYCO is pushing for instead, however, is for brand owners and retailers to belong to MROs as associate members and commit to sustainability initiatives and practices that will divert waste away from landfill. Unfortunately there are still many free-rider converters in the packing industry who do not adhere to the ‘producer pays’ principle and do not belong to an MRO to support the industry in achieving its sustainability targets.

‘Government needs to ensure that separation-at-source and kerbside collection is implemented by every municipality’

The decision-makers who can help us do this are the brand owners and retailers who buy the products for resale in their stores. We need these leaders to come on-board and share our vision of 100% converter support by insisting that their packaging suppliers are paying the current voluntary sustainability levy, which is then used to grow collection and recycling volumes. We believe that the brand owners and retailers exercise an immense influence on the packaging industry and therefore have a significant role to play in waste management and recycling.

Q: What does the country have to do to ensure more people recycle?
A: The education of consumers to make them aware of the importance and benefits of recycling must be increased astronomically. As an industry, we use every means available to show the public that recycling can be easy, fun and simple. However, we need local and provincial government help to make sure the necessary infrastructure is in place so that people can recycle. We receive numerous messages from people around the country saying that they would love to start recycling but that no collection system is in place in the areas where they live. We encourage them to take their recyclables to a drop-off site or a school in their area that does collect recyclables, yet this still does not make it easy enough for the general public. Simplicity and convenience are the most important factors in trying to change people’s behaviour and turn them into recyclers.

Q: What sort of education programmes are you involved with?
A: We have identified the youth as a major untapped market that needs to be educated about recycling. To this end, we have created a series of YouTube videos that appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. We will also be running a school communications campaign around the country over the next six months. In early 2016, we will be launching a packaging clean-up team, which involves schools and local communities in raising awareness about the need to clean-up and recycle in their own areas.

Q: Ideally, What role should the government be playing?
A: From an industry perspective, we are calling on government to make it mandatory for packaging converters to belong to an MRO. At the same time, it should also be mandatory for the importers of packaging (i.e. the brand owners) to pay a recycling levy to these MROs that can be used responsibly to fund the growth of plastics recycling. In terms of general consumers and accessing this valuable waste stream, government needs to ensure that separation-at-source and kerbside collection is implemented by every municipality countrywide to ensure that valuable waste does not end up in landfill.

Q: Your target is a 35% collection rate by 2020. How close are you to achieving that figure?
A: We have set ourselves the goal of growing polyolefin recycling in the country by a further 300 000 tons over the next five years. This is an ambitious target, considering that the 2014 recycling rate achieved was 31.8% or 171 000 tons. We monitor ourselves against this five-year target in every round of project funding, and feel confident that we can achieve our objectives in view of the fact that we are currently on track with our business model. With additional recycling levy funding, we will be able to accelerate this growth and achieve even greater results.

By Patrick Farrell
Image: Cindy Fourie