Recycling myths debunked

By using a baffling methodology, lobby group Plastics SA claims an almost 50% recycling rate. A chemical engineering professor has taken them to task, saying the true rate is about 17%.

The plastics industry claims it recycles nearly 50% of South Africa’s plastic products, making us one of the most efficient plastic recycling nations in the world and more efficient than the 27 member states of the European Union.

Truth, however, is not always what it seems. Nor what the industry would like it to be.

University of Cape Town (UCT) chemical engineering professor Harro von Blottnitz says South Africa’s plastic recycling rate is closer to 17%, definitely nowhere near the 46.3% that industry lobby group Plastics SA claims.

The ambitious recycling claim comes at a time when the industry is under public and state pressure to reduce the volume of plastic polluting the sea, rivers, dams and even South Africa’s tap water. 

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Tiny fragments of plastic have already been found in tap water samples in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the Water Research Commission has launched a number of studies to assess the potential health impacts of microplastic pollution on people and the environment. Plastic is a synthetic material with additives and softening agents that may be harmful to health after accumulating in the food chain.

As a result, demands are growing for bans on certain types of plastic products, mainly single-use items such as straws, product packaging and throwaway plates and cups.

This growing pressure on the industry may help explain why Plastics SA claims in its latest National Plastics Recycling Survey that “South Africa recycled 46.3% of all plastic products in 2018, whereas Europe only recycled 31.1%, making us a world leader in mechanical recycling”.

But Von Blottnitz says such claims appear to be misleading and that the industry – and the government – could do much better in reducing the volume of plastic waste in the environment.

Contested claim

Von Blottnitz and fellow members of the UCT Environmental and Process Systems Engineering Research Group confronted the industry nearly two years ago, contesting several of its recycling claims.

He and colleagues Takunda Chitaka and Clare Rodseth produced a detailed material flow analysis (MFA) diagram and said Plastics SA’s claims about high recycling rates stood in stark contrast to the observed high volumes of plastic waste in the sea and on land.

“In summary, South Africa does indeed do comparatively well at plastics recycling, but could recover much more,” they said. “Much more recycling is possible and necessary, but a singular focus on this strategy cannot achieve a plastic-free environment.”

Von Blottnitz points out that industry calculations exclude the volume of imported plastic. This skews the calculations, because including imports would lower the local recycling percentages cited by Plastics SA.

A recent study by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries estimates that plastic imports could be twice as large as total domestic plastic production, he says.

25 April 2019: A worker tries to clean up plastic and other waste in the Durban harbour after a large volume of trash was swept down river and into the harbour by floods in the vicinity. (Photograph by  Ihsaan Haffejee)
25 April 2019: A worker tries to clean up plastic and other waste in the Durban harbour after a large volume of trash was swept down river and into the harbour by floods in the vicinity. (Photograph by  Ihsaan Haffejee)

Another reason for the high industry statistics is that Plastics SA uses a methodology known as the “input recycling rate”, which appears to measure the percentage of collected waste that is sent for recycling rather than the percentage of plastic that is actually recycled.

Finally, the claim that South Africa is better at plastic recycling than Europe also deserves further scrutiny, as Plastics SA is selectively comparing the recycling rate of one country (South Africa) with the average recycling rate of 27 EU members, some of which have a much better record than others. 

For example, European Commission statistics suggest that Lithuania and Bulgaria currently recycle nearly 70% of their plastic packaging waste whereas France, Finland and Malta recycle less than 30%.

‘Managing’ waste

When asked why it had chosen a reporting methodology that the average person on the street was unlikely to understand or be familiar with, Plastics SA spokesperson Annabé Pretorius said: “We have chosen to follow the same methodology as Europe in reporting their recycling rates, ie, the percentage of their collected waste that is sent for recycling. It is also the methodology followed for years for paper, glass and cans in South Africa and the same methodology that Petco [the South African PET Recycling Company, PET being polyethylene terephthalate] adopted when they started 10 years ago.”  

Pretorius said the industry was, however, by no means suggesting that “we have arrived”. 

“There are still huge challenges and tonnes of plastics that are not recycled,” she said. 

“We were in contact with Prof Von Blottnitz [about his suggestion that industry recycling rates were closer to 17% than 46%] and he is using an alternative methodology to calculate a recycling rate. Plastics SA cannot agree, or disagree, with the figures in the MFA of the University of Cape Town as it is based on a multitude of assumptions. 

“There are no accurate statistics on the tonnages of plastics that are imported as packaging, as part of packaged products or as finished products. To track progress, or the lack thereof, one needs figures that can be compared year on year and we chose the domestic consumption – locally made – figures as the denominator.” 

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Plastics SA continues to publish statistics that best suit its narrative, despite critiques such as Von Blottnitz’s in 2018. “I believe that Plastics SA is transparent in the way that the figures are calculated and recorded, and it is by no means a way of not paying attention to Prof Von Blottnitz. Our mechanical recycling industry was, up to now, of world standard and we are proud of what it managed to achieve to date. In comparison with Europe [the EU], it is good,” said Pretorius.

“If Prof Von Blottnitz is comfortable with the assumptions for imported finished products, he can elect to calculate a recycling figure [of 17%] in a manner suitable for his reasoning. Plastics SA does not accept or contest his percentage and understands how it was calculated, based on his MFA assumptions.”

Plastics SA’s figures appear to be designed to confuse and mislead the public, and make the plastics industry look better than it is when it comes to recycling. But the lobby group has chosen to continue with the same methodology. “It was never the intention to ‘confuse and mislead’ the general public,” said Pretorius. “I believe Plastics SA is vocal enough about the problems we face in South Africa with regards to a failing waste management system and huge challenges with litter, illegal dumping, mismanaged landfills, etc.”

Steamrollers and ballerinas

Von Blottnitz said he and his colleagues met with Plastics SA in late 2018, after raising their issues with the lobby group’s recycling figures. But the industry is still claiming a recycling rate of nearly 50%.

When asked if he thought the industry was seeking to misrepresent the percentage of plastic that is recycled, Von Blottnitz said that as a chemical engineering professor, it took him about three days of questioning and reflecting to properly understand how the industry defined the term “input recycling rate”.

“This is a complex situation [potential solutions to the plastic waste crisis] and as such should not be tackled by simplistic regulation, he said. “Talk of banning just allows populist politicians to cultivate a ‘strongman’ image and typically is either ineffective or has undesired consequences.” 

Von Blottnitz noted that recent studies by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research confirm that plastics are extremely eco-efficient materials for shopping bags, with the big proviso that the plastic waste at the end-of-life phase is properly managed so it does not enter the environment.

28 July 2020: Plastic litter pollutes the Msunduzi River in Pietermaritzburg. (Photograph by Tony Carnie)
28 July 2020: Plastic litter pollutes the Msunduzi River in Pietermaritzburg. (Photograph by Tony Carnie)

“Banning, or rather targeted restriction may well have a role to play for a small number of plastic items highly prone to littering and leakage, as shown in the recently approved PhD thesis of my student Takunda Chitaka. She shows that plastic items associated with food-on-the-go really do need special consideration.”

He suggests that plastic packaging should be treated differently in urban and rural areas, because the transport of waste plastic is expensive and many rural municipalities are failing to manage waste collection properly.

“Overall, I advocate for a nuanced approach to regulation of these versatile materials, involving a mix of industry self-regulation with civil society and government oversight, drawing on best available scientific insights.

“In this light, I will say that I continue to find the advocacy style of Plastics SA more like a steamroller than a ballerina. Maybe they feel that their counterpart, in national government, is more likely to react to steamrollers than to ballerinas. As a society, we definitely can go to a version 2.0 on how we think about regulation of complex problems, drawing on the best scientific knowledge.”

The volume of new plastics produced globally continues to grow rapidly. Plastics SA acknowledges that virgin polymer production in South Africa has grown by 21% since 2009. And Science magazine published new research in July suggesting that plastic waste entering the marine environment is on course to double by 2040, while more than 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be dumped annually on land and in bodies of water.

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