Plastic in South Africa: Eliminating Waste in Sustainable Ways

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SEATTLE, Washington — Waste management is a concern for several lower-income nations as they often lack the infrastructure to effectively and sustainably handle large quantities of trash. South Africa is currently leading efforts on the African continent to improve the handling of a specific type of waste: plastic.

The South African Plastics Pact

Beginning in January 2020, South Africa joined the Plastics Pact, making South Africa the first African nation to join the network. The Plastics Pact Network is a system of national and regional initiatives working toward “a circular economy for plastics” to dramatically reduce waste worldwide. The South African Plastics Pact outlines these goals for 2025:
  • Taking action on problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models
  • 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled
  • 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging

Recycling for the People

Johann Conradie, the chairman of the South African Plastics Recyclers Organisation (Sapro), believes that South Africa is different from the other nations pushing for better plastic management. This is because South Africa is more financially-motivated as opposed to European nations that are often more environmentally-motivated.
Sapro has reported that “plastic recycling created 7,892 formal jobs in recycling centres in 2018.” An additional 58,470 people reaped the benefits, “including informal waste pickers and small or family-owned businesses.” Informal waste pickers are people that find recyclables discarded in landfills and “sell them to buy-back facilities.” The pickers are often given cash for their finds, and it can be a way for some who would otherwise be unemployed to support themselves.
In Europe and North America, services collect recyclables from households and place the items into recycling centers. Yet, waste-picking jobs are necessary because landfills provide at least 70% of recyclables in South Africa. Unlike other countries, South Africa needs this waste-picking method in order to preserve the land and eliminate plastic waste.   

South Africa’s Unique Recycling Methods

Not only is South Africa leading recycling efforts when it comes to implementing policies but it is also relatively progressive in how it recycles. In August of 2019, Shisalanga Construction began development on a road being repaved using plastic milk bottles. Machines melt the bottles and mix them with additives. The recycled mixture replaces 6% of the asphalt’s bitumen binder so that every ton of asphalt contains roughly 118 to 128 bottles.
According to the South African Road Federation, “potholes cost the country’s road users an estimated $3.4 billion per year in vehicle repairs and injuries.” So the repaving of damaged roads is solving problems for the citizens while also removing trash from landfills. While the cost of this new method is roughly the same. However, the roads are expected to last longer and therefore be more cost-effective in the long run.
If these new methods and policies function as planned in South Africa, other nations in Africa may observe the benefits and integrate them as well. South Africa will hopefully serve as a trendsetter that will foster a new era of plastic management in lower-income nations.

 – Lindsey Shinkle
Photo: Unsplash

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