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Several top SA retailers meeting plastic packaging recycling targets, but is that enough?

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Several major South African retailers are meeting the targets set for collecting and recycling the plastic packaging in which their products are sold, successfully keeping some of it out of the environment.

Of the more than 120 000 tons of plastic entering the South African market through Petco members last year, 69% has been collected for recycling. This is according to audited data released this month by the country’s oldest producer responsibility organisation. It represents 2022 collection and recycling rates for the products Petco members have registered, comprising mainly PET bottles, jars and their labels and closures.

Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Unilever, Tiger Brands, Twizza, The Beverage Company, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, among others, count among the Petco members.

This comes a year after the promulgation of the Section 18 amendment to the National Environmental Management: Waste Act. Outlining now-mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPR), the regulations require packaging producers – brand owners, retailers and importers – to comply with stipulated annual targets for the improved design, collection and recycling of post-consumer product packaging in a bid to move the country towards a more circular economy.

Formed in 2004 as a voluntary PRO, Petco administers dedicated EPR schemes for a range of packaging materials on behalf of its members. It assists members with the sustainable design of product packaging and supports the nationwide collection and recycling of PET bottles and their associated plastic closures and labels that end up in the same waste stream.

Petco members placed 121 369 tons of packaging on the market, of which 83 967 tons of post-consumer packaging was collected for recycling, for a total recycling rate of 66%. Photo: Petco

Last year, Petco members placed 121 369 tons of packaging on the South African market, comprising mainly PET beverage bottles, home and personal care bottles, edible oil bottles, food bottles and jars, plus their associated labels and closures, as well as minor volumes of PET strapping, shrink sleeves and thermoforms.

Of this volume, 69%, or 83 967 tons of post-consumer packaging, was collected for recycling, with a total recycling rate of 66% achieved.

In addition, Petco's financial support for one of its contracted recycling partners facilitated the availability of 25 000 tons of food-grade recycled PET (rPET) for inclusion in new product packaging, helping the broader sector to meet its recycled content targets.

The data also reveals that PETCO helped its members surpass Year 1 government targets for collecting:

  • PET beverage bottles

  • Plastic PET oil bottles

  • Single-use PET products – covering home, food and personal care

  • Polyolefin rigids

Petco chief executive Cheri Scholtz said in a statement she was proud of the role the organisation played in driving change across the packaging value chain towards a circular economy in which “packaging can be repurposed back into packaging”.

While PROs struggled to come to grips with the Year 1 reporting requirements set by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), Scholtz said Petco had used its 17 years of experience operating under a voluntary model to assist its members in transitioning to the mandatory EPR environment.

“The results we’ve achieved are due to the commitment of our members. We appreciate their partnership and inputs in navigating this new EPR space together.”

Soft plastics wrapping at Woolworths store

For the past few years, Woolworths has made a commitment to phase out single-use plastic with its zero packaging waste to landfill vision. Photo: Woolworths

Scholtz said Petco had developed a new, more robust EPR declaration system to simplify the reporting process for members.

“In order to report more accurately on the various identified products for which we’ve enabled the collection, Petco undertook a bale characterisation study to better understand the typical composition of a PET bale which is purchased by our contracted recyclers.

“In combination, through our member declarations, regular recycler audits and bale sampling assessments, we are able to report with greater granularity. This assists us to meet our DFFE reporting requirements and shows our diverse membership how we are tracking their particular identified products,” said Scholtz.

This year, Petco also introduced an EPR scheme for liquid board packaging (LBP), which will be included in the reporting for Year 2.

“In offering an EPR scheme for LBP, we see immediate synergies for a number of our members that already sell products in both PET and LBP. We also know that the waste streams within which we work are not exclusive to PET and, as such, expanding our focus to include LBP is relatively simple for our teams in the field.

“In Year 2, we will continue with our member engagement workshops and work closely with our members for higher impact.

“Petco remains committed to working with our members and all tiers of government to achieve EPR regulatory targets and to enable our members to meet their reporting requirements, both Section 18 EPR requirements and their own. We’ll continue to lead the implementation of EPR in South Africa,” said Scholtz.

Investing in recycling value chain

In 2022, on behalf of its members, Petco invested R54.9 million in support of the collection and recycling value chain, helping to improve the integration of the informal collection sector, increase the street value of recyclable waste, and build the capacity of its contracted recycling partners.

Highlights included:

  • Supporting 104 projects – inclusive of waste collectors, SMMEs and co-operatives – in all nine provinces with equipment such as baling machines, trailers, trolleys and scales;

  • Engaging with national and provincial government departments, as well as 46 municipalities across all nine provinces; and

  • Running 40 training and awareness workshops across eight provinces, covering topics such as collecting and sorting recyclable materials, how to market a business and record keeping for waste collection SMMEs.

Strategic sustainability partnerships

In April, Petco said more than 40 local, district and provincial municipalities countrywide have benefited from strategic sustainability partnerships in 2021/2 – not just improving waste collection and PET plastic recycling rates, but also creating much-needed income opportunities in the sector and helping develop South Africa’s circular economy. 

One such drive involves the Zonda Insila Programme (ZIP), which was launched in Breyton in 2019 with only four projects and now boasts 14 projects supporting 240 residents spanning the Nkangala, Gert Sibande and Ehlanzeni district municipalities in Mpumalanga.

“With the level of interest shown and the growing number of informal waste pickers, there is no doubt that ZIP is encouraging more and more young people to shift their thinking towards waste as a form of potential income generation. To say waste is trash is outdated,” said ZIP coordinator Linah Duduzile Ndala.

For the past 17 years, Petco, together with its members, has been engaging with municipalities on sustainability programmes to improve effective waste management and recycling rates. Key among municipal waste management priorities is the diversion of waste that has a value from landfills, as well as accommodating waste pickers in the recycling value chain.

“Waste is not trash, it is economy,” said Ndala. “The role of stakeholders like municipalities, Petco and the province is very important because they need to take the lead.”

Petco's role in such municipal waste management partnership projects comes in the form of equipment provision and infrastructure support for waste pickers and buy-back centres – with the goal of incorporating waste pickers in the formal recycling sector – as well as training and skills development for municipal employees involved in waste management.

“Currently, there are very few municipal separation-at-source collection systems, so we work with interested municipalities to establish collection projects and expand PET collection into new areas,” said Scholtz.

“This year so far, we have conducted 28 training workshops for 1 357 waste pickers in eight provinces, and a further three accredited business training workshops. We help grow sustainable businesses and sponsor infrastructure and equipment to unlock collections and improve the quantity and quality of post-consumer PET collected,” she said.

Another successful drive has seen the Drakenstein Municipality reaping the rewards of a recycling programme launched four years ago at the Wellington Landfill Site, with several success stories emanating from it.

According to Thys Serfontein, Senior Manager: Solid Waste and Landfill Management at Drakenstein Municipality, it has been one of the first municipalities to successfully complete the “integration of waste pickers into the formal waste industry at municipal level”.

“As soon as our Material Recovery Facility (MRF) and Refuse Transfer Station are fully functional in 2022/23, these wastepreneurs will be accommodated. They will be able to increase their production and it will also mean that approximately 50 tons less material will reach the landfill site,” said Serfontein.

Scholtz said waste pickers “play an important role in diverting waste from landfill and will play an increasingly valuable role in municipal waste collection systems and rolling out kerbside projects”.

“Their integration advances South Africa’s priorities such as job creation, poverty alleviation, environmental protection and economic transformation,” Scholtz said, adding that Petco’s experience in working with the entire PET value chain made it qualified to assist municipalities with sustainability efforts.

“In the past year alone, Petco and our partners ensured that 90 402 tons of post-consumer PET, which equates to 2.1 billion bottles, was collected for recycling, saving 560 495 cubic metres of municipal landfill space. A further R1.2 billion was injected into the national economy from the sale of recycled materials.

“The impact of partnerships on the recycling value chain cannot be underestimated, and collaboration is critical to ensuring that change can be implemented at a national scale.”

Plans are currently under way to assist a further 21 sustainability projects with equipment, branding and accredited training.

* I'm Not Plastic's vision is to encourage people to embrace an authentic lifestyle, in which single-use plastic and food waste are eliminated.


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