1.144 million tonnes of recyclable plastic entered the South African waste stream in 2017, and 41.8% of this was recycled based on input tonnages – a 5,9% year-on-year growth.

Speaking to ESI Africa, Kate Stubbs, Director Business Development and Marketing at Interwaste, noted that "while this figure shows significant growth in the increased awareness from South Africans around plastic recycling – which has for long, been a contentious topic – there is still more to be done in managing perceptions around waste recycling in general."

Stubbs added: "This is critical if we are to make strides in achieving a zero waste-to-landfill status and, all stakeholders can play a role in finding and supporting solutions – as the responsibility doesn’t lie with government alone."

Waste-to-energy

According to Stubbs, waste–to–energy plants are one such solution as these provide alternative disposal means for plastic and other forms of waste.

"In fact, the use of waste-to-energy plants, has taken off in countries like Australia where they are currently exploring a concept known as 'plastic to energy' to turn the chemical energy stored in waste plastic into a fuel.

"Locally, waste-to–energy plants are also on the uptake, and while this is the case, we need to consider that there are different waste-to-energy plants that repurpose other sources of waste not necessarily relating to plastics, and therefore, it is not a one size fits all approach."

She explained that Interwaste recently launched a Refuse Derived Fuel (RDR) plant with the aim to reduce waste-to-landfill and directly contribute towards government’s efforts to reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

"The plant pioneers some forms of general, industrial and municipal waste into alternative fuels – while ensuring less reliance on fossil fuels that are carbon intensive, such as coal. Taking on average 100 tonnes of certain general, industrial and municipal waste per month, the RDF plant converts this waste into an alternative fuel – used in the cement industry and developed according to European standards.

"However, the plant has the capacity to process 300 tonnes each month and is aiming towards driving these types of numbers – upon growth of this type of waste product."

She stressed: "This plant offers a more substantial and economic alternative to traditional fuel. In fact, RDF fuel is equivalent to A-Grade coal and therefore, forms a very sustainable and robust alternative to fossil fuel use. Such fuels can be used within sole/co-feeding plants and replaces conventional fuels (e.g. coal) in production plants for power generation, steam generation, heat generation, cement kilns and other suitable combustion installations."

How you can get involved in plastic waste management

There is growing awareness in South Africa around plastic recycling, and as a result, is pushing the hand of the waste industry to innovate and find solutions to effectively and sustainably repurpose waste, Stubbs explained.

"Waste-to-energy plants go beyond the call of sustainably repurposing and reducing plastic waste, as these plants can be designed to repurpose various forms of waste and turn it into usable and sustainable energy. This move will not only contribute to environmental preservation, but also enables cost saving opportunities.

"While there is pressure on the waste sector to innovate, manufacturers in particular also play a big role in incorporating plastic usage right up front, in the design phase of products and packaging by adopting a cradle to grave approach – one that considers the whole life cycle."

She said that all organisations can play a role in plastics waste management by adopting strict internal recycling policies that promote waste separation at source, to prevent cross contamination of the waste stream.

This way, the waste management process becomes more manageable and ensures that waste can still be recycled. Businesses can also educate their employees around recycling of materials like plastic to promote this culture internally.