South Africa leading the African circular plastics industry

The European recycling market is facing a shortage of quality feedstock material and attracts African recycled polymer suppliers to be net exporters. However, the recycled material must still meet quality and traceability requirements of such markets. In meeting the quality standards for export markets, this will naturally help develop the value of African recycling materials and markets.

South Africa is often viewed as the most developed country in the region for circular plastics. This is largely due to the close collaboration across the plastics industry who often takes the lead in finding solutions. 

The ICIS Recycling Supply Tracker has identified just under 20 PET, PE and PP recycling plants in the country, the highest number in any African country, followed by Nigeria and Egypt. 

South Africa was also the first country to have a food grade PET recycler with EFSA positive opinion in 2015. Due to the location of the country, focus has been on the domestic recycling market as trade to other regions has not been as attractive, unlike other markets such as Egypt and Morocco. Therefore, South Africa has tended to lead the region in working towards a circular economy.

PET Recycling Company (PETCO) is an example of industry led collaboration in South Africa, co-created and funded by industry members including Coca-Cola. 

Established in 2004, PETCO took on the role of EPR for the South African PET industry involving brands, retailers, converters, producers, consumers and recyclers. The voluntary EPR fee supported PET recycling by investing in infrastructure, collection and recycling PET waste. 

In 2019, South Africa achieved a 62% collection rate for PET bottles up from 24% in 2007. 

Seeing the benefits of the initiative and effective supply chain outcome, other countries in the region are looking at South Africa as an example to apply best practices in their local markets. PETCO models have been established in Kenya in 2018, Ethiopia in 2019, Tanzania in March 2021, and with future plans in Uganda.

In January 2020, South Africa launched the SA Plastics Pact following the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s initiative. 

Members from the plastics industry will collaborate to achieve a circular economy for plastic packaging by reaching four targets by 2025: reducing problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging, 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, 70% of plastic packaging is effectively recycled, and 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging.

Collaboration with the plastics industry has shown to bring about the fastest growth and has become the chosen strategy to develop the recycling industry in Africa. 

Brands have realised that collection of plastic waste is necessary to ensure sufficient good quality recycled product to meet their sustainability targets. Companies such as Coca Cola, Dow, Nestlé, Diageo and Unilever have launched initiatives with a local focus to improve waste collection in a region where there is very little access to a formal waste management system. 

The informal sector waste pickers are crucial to the African recycling industry and must be incorporated and supported in any solutions in its development. With more investment, the recycling industry will be able to take advantage of the large volumes of plastic waste available. 

Carolina Perujo Holland, Analyst, Plastic Recycling at ICIS

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