How South African businesses can up their recycling game. By Grethe Bestbier.
A circular economy is one where everything is reused, and nothing is wasted. Modern economies tend to be linear — we take resources to make things that we use and then discard. This has created problems with resource depletion on the one hand and environmental degradation on the other. A circular economy addresses both these issues by turning refuse into raw materials.
Recycling is key to the circular economy. South Africa is already a world leader in recycling but that’s no reason for local businesses to be complacent. The fruit industry’s Packhouse Action Group has been proactive by establishing a plastics work group to mitigate the risks associated with plastic packaging. They have also been looking at other global initiatives to see how South Africa can take sustainability to the next level.
The story so far
According to Johann Conradie, chair of the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO), South Africa sets a global example when it comes to recycling. “Relative to the size of its economy, no other country recycles as much as South Africa,” says Conradie. Almost half of all post-consumer plastic is recycled annually in South Africa. South Africa is also the foremost recycler of low-density polyethylene.
Although developed countries often appear to be doing well at recycling, their figures include plastic shipped to China. Since China stopped accepting plastic waste in 2018, there has been a backlog at recycling plants in the European Union. South Africa, however, recycles locally. Despite our economic challenges and the lack of government support for recyclers, the sector is thriving.
That’s all good news with respect to our situation internally, but it’s not where the story ends. South African fruit production in 2018 was a staggering 320 million cartons. The deciduous sector — stone and pome fruit — was responsible for a quarter of these. Each and every one of these cartons contained some form of plastic packaging.
What can the South African fruit industry do to stem the tide? Here it can be useful to look at what’s happening elsewhere.
Putting a WRAP on plastic
WRAP — Waste and Resources Action Programme — is a global initiative to promote sustainable waste management. WRAP has been establishing Plastics Pacts worldwide, aimed at promoting sustainable plastic use. In the United Kingdom, WRAP has implemented the UK Plastics Pact with support from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity which advances the growth of the circular economy.
Although WRAP addresses multiple issues, their UK Plastics Pact has focussed on plastics since its establishment in April 2018. The goal is a system where plastic is valued and doesn’t pollute the environment. “It’s about fixing the system and making sure plastic is seen as the great material that it can be,” says strategic partnership manager Peter Skelton.
To achieve this goal, the UK Plastics Pact has four targets designed around driving circularity of plastics. Members undertake to reach these targets by 2025. “The pact is a sector commitment,” says Skelton. “We are working with the retailers, and they are working with the suppliers to try and achieve these targets.”
WRAP’s technical specialist Laura Lewis adds that these targets call for real action, which is monitored and measured. “It’s not a philanthropic kind of sustainability effort,” says Lewis. “It is action and innovation.”
The Packhouse Action Group endorses WRAP implementation as a way of improving sustainability in the fruit industry.
The South African Plastics Pact
Plastics Pacts have also been launched in France and Chile. “Globally we have common challenges. So, let’s share and not reinvent the wheel,” says Skelton. “We don’t need every country to have one, but we need Plastics Pacts that can actually influence the system.”
In South Africa, a Plastics Pact is being implemented by SAPRO and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Although a global approach with similar targets is beneficial, it’s crucial to adapt the policies to local conditions.
“Every country has its own challenges and circumstances,” says Conradie. South Africa’s recycling industry hasn’t existed for very long, which is one challenge. “Another factor is that our recycling is mainly based on economic viability, while in many other nations, such as the UK, the main incentive for recycling is sustainability – despite the high costs.”
Countries also have different recycling technologies. While the UK uses infrared technology to identify and separate different types of plastics, South Africa relies on manual labour. On the other hand, while most countries don’t recycle polystyrene, South Africa is one of the few that does. All these differences need to be taken into account by specific Plastics Pacts.
The Packhouse Action Group, along with WRAP, encourages South African retailers to sign up to the SA Plastics Pact. Embracing the circular economy is part of future-proofing the deciduous fruit industry — and the wider world in which they operate.
Bonus: The goals of the Plastics Pact.
The four Plastics Pact targets
- Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items through redesign, innovation, or alternative delivery models.
- Ensure that 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.
- Recycle or compost 70% of plastic packaging.
- Incorporate an average of 30% recycled content in all plastic packaging.
Eliminate these problem plastics
Disposable plastic cutlery, plates, and bowls.
Plastic stirrers and straws.
All polystyrene and PVC packaging.
Cotton buds with plastic stems.
Oxo-degradables that break down to create microplastics