Plastics products not being recycled in South Africa in any substantial quantities

There has been a strong notion over the past few years that the recycling industry is moving towards the materials with the lowest possible resistance and efforts. Existing, as well as new recyclers targeted the most common product lines where they were assured of steady supplies of incoming materials and where the markets for recyclate were well established. Very little, if any, effort went into developing markets for less common materials. Inevitably, these materials offer higher margins but are available in smaller quantities and also require better technical skills. It is more attractive to venture into known territory. The following products are not recycled in any substantial quantities or not recycled at all in South Africa for various reasons:

  • Automotive components are not recycled in any substantial volumes due to the mixed nature of the engineering polymer content. Disassembly costs are high and only a small volume of pre-consumer and industrial waste is recycled as well as post-consumer PP bumpers.
  • Carrier bags – PE-HD carrier bags made from virgin materials. The carrier bags from the municipal solid waste stream are often used as refuse bags and the contamination levels normally exceed the weight of the plastic bag. Secondly, and more seriously, is the level of filler (CaCO3) added to the bags to reduce the manufacturing cost? The filler content more than often exceeds the polymer content! The bags cannot be cleaned and recycled in conventional post-consumer recycling plants. Clean carrier bags are separated from the waste stream in separation at source collection systems and clean enough to be recycled, but are not currently recycled due to the increased specific gravity of the film.
  • Contaminated domestic cling films – both PVC-P cling and PE-LLD stretch films used by consumers are contaminated with meat juices and food residue and the cost of cleaning exceeds the value of the recycled product.
  • Cosmetic and personal care containers – tubs, jars and tubes are hardly recycled as the residual contents cannot be cleaned effectively in high volume, commercial post-consumer recycling plants. The variety of polymers used in single packs also complicates the sorting. They are recycled in small volumes for polywood applications.
  • Cross-linked Polyethylene hot water pipes and cable insulation will not melt again and cannot be recycled.
  • Electronic waste – very little tonnages of electronic waste gets recycled at present. Some market development needs to be done to find suitable applications for the various polymer blends and alloys used in electronic components. EWASA (Electronic Waste Association of South Africa) is still developing collection depots and safe dismantling operations and has not yet commenced with the development of end-products from the recycled plastics components of the waste. The precious metal content is the main driver of the electronic waste recycling industry.
  • Labels – PVC-U and PET labels find applications as heavily printed shrink-sleeving for aesthetically pleasing packaging. However, once removed, these labels are not recycled. (On the other hand, PP shrink sleeves that are removed from the PET recycling lines, are recycled into polywood applications.)
  • Multi-layer and multi-material packaging films used for improved shelf life and reduced material usage cannot be recycled in high volumes as the various components cannot be separated easily. Small volumes of pre-consumer films are recycled into polywood applications. (Tetrapak® has implemented the successful recycling of the paper component of their barrier packaging but local solutions for the aluminium-polyethylene part still need to be developed.)
  • Multi-layer PET bottles for energy drinks, alcoholic beverages and ciders are made from co-injected preforms containing nylon as a middle oxygen barrier layer which is not compatible with PET.
  • Oxo-biodegradable films – despite various efforts from the suppliers of oxo-biodegradable additives, there is no evidence that the films would be identified and eliminated from the incoming waste stream that could be destined for long-term, durable product applications like irrigation pipes or builders films.
  • PET films and sheeting – thin clear and metallised PET films are not recycled, neither any products thermoformed from PET sheeting like sandwich trays, fruit and vegetable trays, confectionary packaging or meat produce trays.
  • PET strapping tapes are not locally recycled; one or two waste exporters have managed to secure international buyers and a small percentage of the PET strapping in the market gets exported to the East.
  • Soiled PS-E packaging – the cost of transport and cleaning of this “engineered air” packaging does not justify the value of the small amount of polystyrene. However, the visibility of littered packaging and the subsequent consumer pressure has generated sufficient leverage to implement various industry funded collection programs for contaminated PS-E packaging to be used as a filler in concrete building panels.
  • Soiled PVC-U packaging – bottles, jars and thermoformed trays are not recycled due to the low volume of products in the waste stream that do not justify post-consumer recycling plants. These PVC products can be recycled and used to be very popular when there were sufficient volumes of PVC packaging. Currently, the fruit industry utilizes recycled PVC-U as corner pieces and the manufacturers are in desperate need of clean, recycled PVC-U packaging. (PVC-U pipes and other building and construction profiles are recycled as the thick, heavy products are manually cleaned before being granulated.)
  • Tubs and Trays are not popular to collect as various plastics materials are used to manufacture the same type of trays. Once collected and sorted, PP, PS and PE-HD tubs and trays are recyclable; PET is not. One of the retailers have made considerable effort to change to PP and PS for most of its fast-food and shop packaged products. Unfortunately the material identification codes are either not present or are very small and illegible. Waste pickers, primary- and secondary collectors need to be trained in the selection of recyclable tubs and trays from the waste stream. Plastics|SA determined that a minimum of 48 500 tons of recyclable trays entered the market in 2012.
  • Sun-damaged agricultural films (mulch and silage) – as these products are designed to only last one, or maximum two seasons, the UV exposure during its useful life could be too much.
  • PET films and sheeting – thin clear and metallised PET films are not recycled, neither any products thermoformed from PET sheeting like sandwich trays, fruit and vegetable trays, confectionary packaging or meat produce trays.

A substantial number of polymers are not listed above as they are more likely to be used for a longer working lifetime in engineering type applications, e.g. sky lights, gutters, washing machines and optical fibre cables, etc.