Recycling Your Plastics

Your recycling efforts at home make a bigger difference than you probably realise. In South Africa the volume of recycled plastic material grows annually, with 334 727 tons recycled into raw material last year*.

“The immediate effect on the environment is that pollution is reduced, but in South Africa there is also the critically positive result of job creation,” says Rory Murray, Marketing Director at Tuffy Brands. “We have to start thinking differently about plastic, because re-using it creates a whole value chain.”

Last year the recycling of plastics sustained 5 837 formal jobs in recycling factories, but it is estimated that through the supply chain 52 300 workers received an income because of it*. This includes self-employed waste pickers and employees of smaller entrepreneurial waste collectors.

“In South Africa we currently have an input recycling rate of 43.7 % for all plastics*, which shows that the largest percentage of plastics are not recycled,” says Murray. “There is definitely scope for improvement and the more consumers recycle, the more value will be added on an economic and environmental level.”

Murray says that understanding recycle symbols of plastic items will make recycling for consumers, and further on in the supply chain for the pickers and sorters, much more effective.

He explains that most responsible suppliers use the International Plastic Coding System that indicates the recyclability of plastic products. A triangle or a triangular loop (also known as the Mobius loop) with a number, from 1 to 7, is typically on the side or bottom of a plastic product.

Number 1 is Polyethylene Terephalate Ethylene (PET or PETE), which is probably the most widespread plastic material in use today. It is used to create soft drink and water bottles, salad dressing and peanut butter containers as well as ovenable food trays. It can be remade into polar fleece, fiber and carpet. “It is light-weight, inexpensive and easy to recycle,” Murray says.

Number 2 is High Density Polyethylene (HDPE). It is more durable than PET and is often used as containers for everyday household items such as shampoo, butter and yogurt tubs as well as cleaning products. HDPE can be used to make drainage pipes, fences, benches, new HDPE bottles and other strong plastic items.

Number 3 is Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a strong material and mainly used for pipes, detergent containers and gumboots. It can be remade into mud-flaps, panels and mats.

Number 4 is Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), which is used in plastic bags, clothing and furniture, because of its resilience and flexibility. It can be reused to produce cans, compost bins and floor and landscaping tiles.

Number 5 is Polypropylene (PP), which is often used in bottle tops as well as clear and metalised films for sweets. PP can return to consumers as rakes, brooms and trays.

Number 6 is Polystyrene (PS), a top component for insulation and used in foam products such as Styrofoam. Consumers will find it in disposable food and drink containers and meat trays. Many recycle programs don’t accept it, but it can be used again to produce insulation products, foam packaging and plant containers.

“In South Africa most households recycle numbers 1, 2 and 4, which are flexible plastics that can be easily reconstructed for further use,” Murray says.

“The problem comes in with the number 7 products, which are basically all plastics that do not fall under the other six types such as laminated film, sunglasses and DVD’s. Number 7 plastic products are generally not recyclable, unless used for custom-made products,” he explains. “They therefore cause the most common recycling mistake made by consumers, which is to put everything they deem as plastic in the recycle bin. While plastic is a very versatile material, the recyclability of all are definitely not equal.”

Murray says although it is sometimes unavoidable to buy products with plastic containers that are not easily recyclable, consumers do make a difference when they choose plastic products that are re-usable.

“The best plastic is by and large the one that can be re-used. Many plastic products are now designed for their recyclability, which means the product has a continued lifespan. It can be reconstructed again and again, so it doesn’t end-up in landfills and continues to support job creation in the recycle chain,” he adds.