A world without plastics is unthinkable. The call now is to put back as much of it as possible into the economy


There was a distinct clip-clop-clamber of shoes on brick paving at Masakhane-Tswelopele Primary School in Zandspruit, near Cosmo City in Gauteng, this past January. It was a happy noise. Every learner – about 500 of them in total – had just received a pair of shiny school shoes, and they were enjoying the sound – and the feel – of the new school year.

The shoes were a donation that formed part of a recycling project pioneered by Adcock Ingram Critical Care, Netcare and the City of Johannesburg. ‘I am a strong believer in public and private partnership,’ executive mayor Herman Mashaba said at the handover event. ‘We, as government, have no chance of doing it on our own so it’s incredibly exciting to be part of this project that is built on a joint effort between a pharmaceutical company, a private healthcare provider group and local government, to benefit impoverished children. This is the way of the future.’

The project saw used, non-hazardous intravenous infusion drip bags and tubing made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) being recycled into soles for school shoes. Previously, the waste material would have gone into a landfill. Now, under a pilot project at Netcare Pretoria East and Netcare Unitas hospitals – later extended to Netcare Milpark, Netcare Pinehaven and Netcare Krugersdorp – blue bins were set up on the premises to separate uncontaminated used bags.

Nurses were trained, and the PVC waste material was collected by recyclers who then sold it to a company that converted the PVC plastic into shoe soles. ‘It’s about designing functional products out of our used products, minimising their negative impact on the environment and new products that benefit our communities,’ says Colin Sheen, MD of Adcock Ingram Critical Care. ‘This is part of the future of plastics recycling and we are making it happen in our city.’

Globally, plastic recycling programmes are changing the way businesses think about reducing costs and lowering their impact on the environment. This is particularly important in the case of PVC, given that it is widely regarded as one of the more difficult plastics to recycle, as it breaks down over time and emits dangerous compounds.

Its lightweight cousin is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is commonly used in food packaging. In 2016, in excess of 2 billion PET plastic bottles were recycled in SA, with recyc­led tonnage of plastic bottles growing by more than 800% since 2005. According to Petco, a non-profit organisation that promotes the recycling of PET plastics, SA’s annual PET recycling rate increased from 52% of post-consumer bottle PET in 2015 to 55% in 2016 – exceeding the expected target.

Petco points out in a statement that SA’s PET recycling rate compares well with international levels. ‘The US rate of post-consumer PET recycling hovers around the 30% mark while European average rates are around 59%.’

Meanwhile, the Polystyrene Association of SA announced last September that polystyrene recycling had grown year-on-year to more than 4 200 tons in 2017, saving in excess of 162 billion litres of landfill space thanks to various recycling projects.

‘Expanded polystyrene is one of South Africa’s most commonly used materials, relied on by canteens, spaza shop owners and restaurateurs to keep their food or beverages hot or cold, as well as by retailers to protect high-value items, such as televisions or fridges, owing to the material’s excellent insulation properties,’ says Adri Spangenberg, director of the association. ‘Few people are aware that polystyrene is a valuable resource that is readily recycled in South Africa.

‘Waste management companies collect and supply post-consumer and post-industrial polystyrene products such as meat trays, hamburger clamshells and coffee cups to recyclers, who use it to manufacture stationery, hangers, picture frames, cornices, curtain rods and skirtings,’ he says. ‘In the most recent development it is mixed with a special cement mixture for use in building and construction.’

In traditional waste management, materials will move through a linear process (referred to as ‘make, use, dispose’), where they are manufactured from raw resources, then consumed, and finally sent to landfill. Inspired by the WEF’s 2016 report, the New Plastics Economy, Petco is promoting a circular economy model.

‘Em­bracing a circular economy – a system in which products are never discarded, but reused, recycled and reintroduced into new products – affords a viable opportunity to drive performance, innovation and competitiveness, and stimulate economic growth and development in our country,’ says Casper Durandt, Petco chairman.

‘Taking action to create a supportive business environment for companies that use recovered resources will help drive additional recycling, create more jobs, reduce greenhouse gases and extend the life of existing landfills. It’s an exciting prospect. In short, the circular economy presents our country with plenty of economic opportunities for existing businesses, for women, newcomers, start-ups and for science,’ he says.

Alternative Energy Systems – a Kenyan renewable energy company – provides one example of a circular economy in action. In February 2017, it announced that it was converting plastic waste into commercial synthetic fuel oil, using a conversion technology that involves heating the waste under controlled conditions to produce oil similar to the industrial diesel oil and heavy fuel oil used in power plants, industrial furnaces and boilers.

Similar models of the plant are operating in SA, but the Kenyan site is considered the first commercial project of its kind in Africa.

In an interview with Capital Business, Alternative Energy Systems CEO Rajesh Kent said the plant – located in Kiambu county – has the capacity to convert all types of plastic (including thin-gauge plastic waste) that are below 30 microns. ‘We have begun test runs for the machinery in preparation for official commissioning in early March 2017,’ said Kent.

‘This technology will be transformational in how we handle plastics in this country and Kenya will be used as a benchmark on the continent.’ He added that the plant has the capacity to recycle 16 tons of plastic waste per day.

Elsewhere, following a model pioneered in India, a handful of local municipalities in SA are looking into pilot projects that would use recycled plastic instead of the component bitumen (which is derived from crude oil) in road construction. Last October, the Indian government announced an investment of 6.9 trillion rupees to build 83 677 km of these ‘plastic’ roads over the next five years. According to WEF estimates, India already has more than 33 796 km of plastic roads, which are being hailed as about three times longer-lasting than conventional road structures.

‘We spend so much on building roads that develop potholes and need rebuilding in no time,’ Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a chemistry professor who developed the technology, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. His system uses finely shredded plastic waste – anything from shopping bags to sweet wrappers – added to heated bitumen and then poured over stones.

Vasudevan developed the technology in 2002 and first built a plastic road in his college, Thiagarajar College of Engineering, in the southern city of Madurai before approaching state officials. ‘The road I built is still intact,’ he said. ‘There are no potholes, no cracks. That is proof of its strength and durability. Plus it uses waste plastic that otherwise litters streets and rivers.

‘We are going to be generating waste plastic, and we are going to be building roads for the foreseeable future. Why not use the method that does away with the plastic waste and makes the roads cheaper, durable and safer?’

The WEF’s report takes a similarly practical approach – one that companies around SA are also beginning to embrace. Plastics are used for a variety of commercial, industrial and household purposes.

‘Owing to their combination of unrivalled properties and low cost, plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy,’ the report states.

‘Their use has increased twentyfold in the past half-century, and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Today nearly everyone, everywhere, every day comes into contact with plastics. […] While delivering many benefits, the current plastics economy has drawbacks that are becoming more apparent by the day.’

The report details how 95% of today’s plastic packaging material value (about US$80 billion to US$120 billion annually) is lost to the economy after a short first use. ‘More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower-value applications that are not again recyclable after use. Today, imagining a world without plastics is nearly impossible,’ the WEF report concludes.

The secret, then, lies in putting as much of that plastic as possible back into the economy… Whether that’s in the form of road surfacing, construction material, industrial oil or – and why not? – school shoes.

By Mark van Dijk
Images: iStock, Gallo/Getty Images

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