‘The earth is a closed system for matter – nothing disappears. In nature, the cycle of life operates in a circular system and waste generated by one organism becomes food for another. An exciting challenge facing city communities is to begin to imagine a life without waste, where everything that is thrown away at the end of one life becomes the technical or organic nutrient for another life’ Smart Living Handbook 2008.
Plastic is a remarkable material which comes in more than fifty different forms and has almost countless uses. It is flexible, lightweight and strong and can be shaped and coloured in almost any way you want. Plastic is fairly inexpensive to produce.
Unfortunately it is bad for the environment when it isn’t recycled or reused. The valuable and irreplaceable non-renewable resources such as oil, gas and coal used to make plastic, are wasted when we just use it once and then chuck it away. Plastic inevitably ends up in our oceans, killing marine life and forcing chemicals into our bloodstreams. It generally doesn’t degrade as it is made from petroleum-based chemicals.It needs to be, and can be, recycled.
About 165 722 tons of plastic were recycled in 2009, a vast increase to 90 457 tons recycled in 2000. There are hundreds of recycling companies in South Africa. Find a list to one in your area here. The advantages of plastic recycling are countless:
- less litter is left to blow around and destroy wildlife
- less waste ends up in landfills and
- non-renewable resources are used more effectively.
- 4841 jobs were created for South Africans full time in the plastics recycling industry in 2009. In the collection industry another 34 500 jobs were sustained.
- eliminates the need to import expensive raw materials.
- most importantly for South Africa it saves precious water.
- 11 recycled plastic bottles can make a pair of men’s trousers when recycled into polymers.
Polystyrene now also recycled in South Africa
How are we supposed to know the different types of plastic apart? Look closely at your plastic container. Typically at the bottom of it there will be a symbol or code showing which type of plastic it’s made of, making it easier to sort. The different kinds of coded plastics are:
- PET – polyethylene terephthalate (cooldrink bottles)
- PE-HD – high density polyethylene opaque bottles (milk bottles)
- PVC – polyvinyl chloride clear plastic bottles (dishwashing liquid)
- PE-LD – low density polyethylene thin film (carrier bags)
- PP – polypropylene (yoghurt tubs)
- PS – polystyrene (crack when bent sharply, as in yoghurt or clear meat/egg containers, as well as foam PS like meat trays and disposable drinking cups and take-away containers)
41% of recycled plastics in 2009 consisted of low-density polyethylene plastics like refuse bags, irrigation pipes, flower pots and cable insulation. PET plastics like cooldrink bottles made up 15% of the plastics recycled. They become fibre for sleeping bags, clothing and carpets. Mixed plastics are also recycled. They become ‘plastic wood’ (polywood) which you might recognise as park benches, tables and fence poles. Plastic recycling thus offers more durable products.
Multi-laminated plastic foils (for food packaging such as bacon) can’t be recycled. In the past, foam polystyrene – otherwise known as expanded PS – was not accepted for recycling. Now we recycle expanded and high impact polystyrene around the world.
Expanded polystyrene (cups, seedling trays, egg cartons, clamshells and soft sponge-like packaging) and High Impact polystyrene (HIPS – plastic cutlery, yogurt containers and CD boxes) are recycled into products such as clothes hangers, picture frames, cornices, skirtings, outdoor furniture, poles and decking.
Foam polystyrene foam has a low carbon footprint because it is lightweight. It needs less resources, energy to manufacture and fuel to transport than other products. No chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are used in the manufacturing of expanded polystyrene.
How is plastic recycled?
- Collected plastics are sorted into different types, often also by colour, particularly in the case of film
- The plastics are cut up into smaller pieces or granules
- The granules are washed to remove labels, remnants of contents and soil
- The granules are dried before being fed into an extruder
- The extruder melts the granules and pushes out (extrudes) continuous strings of ‘melt’
- The strings are cooled by water and chopped into pellets by a revolving cutter
- The pellets are bagged, ready to be sold to plastics manufacturers.
One of the big challenges in recycling plastic is the process of identifying and separating the different kinds of plastic waste. It is often contaminated by dirt, sticky labels or excessive printing on containers. We can make it so much easier for these sorters by washing our plastics and pulling the labels off. Another challenge of course is the transportation of bulky plastic waste, because there are only a few sorting points in each province.
Take the personal plastic challenge
- Commit to buying as few disposable products as possible.
- Refuse to visit your supermarket without your own reusable bag in hand. If you forget, force yourself to purchase a cloth bag.
- Reward yourself for your progress. Are you able to go without a plastic carrier bag for more than a year?
- When you visit your favourite take away store, take your own container.
- Ensure that ALL your recyclable plastic is indeed recycled.
- If there’s no collection or depot near you, start a collection point at your child’s school, at the church or at your supermarket.
- All it takes is a champion to start it all up.
- BE the change you want to see.
Easy recycling for dummies
It is easy to recycle, simply:
- separate your organic waste from you recyclables and see it goes into your garden compost
- see that all your recyclable waste is clean (just rinse out) and flatten under foot
- keep non-recyclables only for municipal collection – this should not be more than one plastic shopping bag per week.
If you’re not sure what to do with your packaging, call or write to the manufacturer of that product and ask them to take the container back. This is the principle of extended producer responsibility and we need to make that happen now.
To find out where your nearest recycling depot is contact:
- Plastics Federation: 011 314 4021 or visit www.plasfed.co.za.
- City of Cape Town Refuse Removal Cleaning and Disposal Services: 0860 103 089
- City of Cape Town’s Waste Wise Campaign: 021 400 3298 or click here.
- The Integrated Waste Exchange Programme: visit www.capetown.gov.za
- The Institute of Waste Management: www.iwmsa.co.za
- The Institute for Zero Waste in Africa: 083 471 7276 or via email
- The Polystyrene Packaging Council: 082 686 5082 or click here