One man’s trash, is someone else’s treasure is often the adage used, applicable to plastic bottles. It was Albert Einstein who is quoted as having said ; “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” How true of the major challenges we are faced with as a society in so far as plastic waste is concerned. We created these problems we now complain about, even if most would argue it is the conglomerates with their thirst for profits and dis regard for the environment that have brought us to this point. Whatever your views are, we must solve this problem.

Hence, we look at the business of plastic recycling and focus on an African economic giant, Nigeria; how Lagos, the capital city, hopes to reduce its waste and, by default, its carbon emissions, through recycling items such as PET water bottles. We also look at the bus ness of Mp act’s PET water bottle recycling, with a particular focus on their rPET plant in Germiston, Ekurhuleni , South Africa.

The figures of the amount of carbon emissions that are produced from plastic waste is staggering. I was shocked and disappointed when I read through Raynique Ducie’s report “Greening the Big Blue” in this edition (page 37). One sentence stood out for me: “Ridding the ocean of plastic will go a long way to save our seas.” That is what it has come down to; we must proactively act on this issue to preserve our sea life as well. In essence, what we all know is true, plastic waste is both an environmental and health hazard, and I even dare say, it is nuisance to say the least. Yet, some argue that we cannot totally eliminate plastics and thus, we must focus our efforts as society on how best to reduce the waste. One way proposed that I do agree with, is recycling. In particular focus, plastic bottles are most often used in our daily lives and account for much of the waste we see. Lagos, Nigeria, with a population of twenty-one million people, as per the National Population Commission of Nigeria, only collects a total of less than fifty percent of its waste.

The Coca Cola Company reports that solid waste (including PET bottles and other non-biodegradable materials of course) ends up at dumpsites and landfills, often clogging drains and waterways, contributing to health and environmental issues. In response to this massive health and environmental challenge, the company collaborated with Alkem Nigeria Limited, a synthetic fiber manufacturer, and initiated a buyback and recycling scheme for used PET bottles, no matter what the brand is. The two jointly launched Nigeria’s first bottles-to-fiber recycling operation. The situation is dire, as reported in the World Bank report that painted a dismal picture of the state of affairs in the country, especially its city Lagos, with such a massive population. As per the World Bank’s report, “Lagos is choking from its own escalating pollution, poisonous air that drags its citizens and commerce down, while healthcare costs balloon.” This report does not at all suggest that all is lost, but brings to the fore the dire situation – and that is what is encouraging the communities, government and businesses such as the Coca Cola Company, to act – by embracing recycling of waste, in particular for our feature, plastic bottles. As a business, your human resources live, work and play within these heavily polluted cities. It is thus incumbent upon the business sector to improve the quality of lives of its employees and that of the consumers that keep these businesses afloat.

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola is a Nigerian MBA graduate who co-founded the recycling startup Wecyclers. Wecyclers wants people to care about trash. In making its business case, the company solves this urban waste challenge by offering convenient household recycling services in densely populated, low income neighborhoods. This pioneering social entrepreneur has won accolades for the innovative manner in which she and her partners have set to run a recycling business. For one, they use cargo bicycles for collection of the waste from households. In an interview with a Nigerian magazine, Bilikiss stated that the reason why they had chosen this form of transport was that the areas they operated within are densely operated and the roads tight. For me, what I like is the environmental factor too, as she also mentioned that with the use of bicycles, we have less carbon being emitted.

Wecyclers is not the only Nigerian business that is taking advantage of the potential that PET bottle recycling holds. As much as there are some businesses that are tapping into the PET bottle recycling business, there is so much yet to be done. An UN report I read asserts that it is not uncommon in Nigeria to dump unsorted waste in poorly managed landfills resulting in methane emissions. This population growth is expected to put further strain on the city’s municipal solid waste management infrastructure. Another report suggests that this is a crisis as municipal government collects only 40 percent of city garbage.

Worst affected are the people who live in slum conditions that have no access to formal waste collection and are therefore prone to diseases and increased flooding. Coca-Cola funded the creation of the first two collection centers in Lagos in October 2005, and continues to subsidise the cost collection (buyback) to help sustain the project, which has grown to include more than 22 collection centers across 10 cities. The volume of recycled bottles has grown from 135 tons in 2005 to more than 6 200 tons in 2012, with a total of nearly 26 000 tons recycled since project inception. There is an increasing business case, therefore, for recycling PET water bottles – globally, not only on the African continent. Consider the statistics obtained from one association’s report that puts the total amount of postconsumer PET bottles collected for recycling in the United States in 2014 at 1 812 million pounds in weight. In South Africa, PETCO (the PET Plastic Recycling Company) has spent the last decade or so working with the plastic industry and communities, among others, in order to create (as PETCO puts it), “a more sustainable PET plastic recycling system.”

Some of the results of these efforts include new products made from recycled plastic bottles, such as carpets in car boots and filling duvets and pillows, among others mentioned in the organisation’s report. This financial support, which is provided, is good for communities and the economy and, of course, is better than idle plastic waste that finds itself in landfills and results in that becoming waste that is un-reusable. Unrecycled plastics may also end up as litter. Some of this waste also finds itself in our oceans where turtles, whales, and other sea life become entangled or mistake the waste for food. It is a no brainer to many that recycling is important – but the kind of plastic you buy so you may recycle is also significant. To this end, we have witnessed the emergence of proper education and awareness on the use of PET plastic bottles over the last few years, as well as community members who are working downstream to provide recyclable plastic bottles collected from consumers to properly designated plants for recycling. Mpact, a JSE listed firm and a leader in the manufacturing of paper and plastic packaging in Southern Africa, is one prime example of how plastic bottle recycling is real business. Mpact has a well-developed infrastructure for the collection of waste paper, for recycling in the form of Mpact Recycling. In May 2016, the company officially opened its new recycling PET plant in Wadeville.

Commenting on the significance of having a fully-fledged rPET recycling plant, President of Coca-Cola Southern Africa, Therese Gearhart, indicated at the launch event that; “Our partnership with government and Mpact Polymers is another example of our commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of our drink in consumers’ hands, and puts us one step closer towards our goal of zero-waste to landfill sites; sentiments that our partners echo with the opening of this plant.” The new bottle-to-bottle facility produces recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), which is the recycled raw material used for the manufacturing of new PET bottles from previously used PET bottles. Mpact has appropriately named this grade of PET ‘Savuka PET’, which means revival. While several projects in South Africa are currently involved in recycling PET, this one is the first one in the country to focus specifically on recycling PET for inclusion in beverage packaging. It is the first in Africa to meet The Coca Cola Company’s full certification for PET bottles to package the company’s soft drinks. As stated earlier, there is an increase in plastic bottle recycling globally, and one of the drivers of this exercise for South Africa, PETCO , states that post-consumer PET collection and recycling grew from 16 percent in 2004 to 52 percent in 2015 (9 840 tons to 74 360 tons respectively, the majority of which was processed into polyester staple fibre, or recycled into bottleand food-grade recycled PET resin, thereby fully closing the loop in bottlegrade recycling). In 2015, the total South African market for PET (virgin and recycled) was approximately 210 000 tons, close to 70 percent of which was for use in the beverage industry. PETCO targets to collect and recycle a landmark 70 percent of PET bottles by 2022.

Collecting Waste Makes Business Sense

Figures supplied from PETCO indicate that 50 000 income opportunities have been created through the collection of PET in South Africa, to date. The recycling industry has become a significant employer and its potential to deliver economic and social benefits continues to be powerfully demonstrated. Mpact’s collectors are also seen as small businesses and the company is involved in providing training to these small businesses. Training is focused around the different grades of material available in the market, how to collect it, and how to sort accordingly. This ensures that they collect material that is of the standard and quality required by Mpact Recycling.

Robertville Recycling, a buy-back centre in Roodepoort, is a true success story. The centre was established by Queen Phashe- Boikanyo some 13 years ago, with the help of Mpact Recycling, which assisted with finding a location and providing training. Today she has five full time employees and is supplied with recyclable material by local collectors who scour the surrounding industrial areas for waste paper, cardboard and plastic. Today Phashe- Boikanyo processes about 100 tons of waste paper and cardboard a month, selling it on to Mpact Recycling. Her successful recycling business has enabled her to put all four of her children through school and the oldest two through university. Her eldest daughter is now a pharmacist and the other will soon graduate as a dentist.

Mniniwo Mpumlwana, who is a local collector in Tulisa Park, started collecting recyclables in 2011. He heard about Mpact through other collectors and decided to start collecting paper, cardboard and plastic bottles because he was sitting at home doing nothing after he retired. He knows how to sort the different materials and to bring these to Mpact Recycling.

By Zanele Mlambo