This December holidays, whether you are buying refreshments to take to the beach or on a hike, stocking up on your monthly groceries or on a shopping spree for the ingredients for a lavish and traditional festive season dinner, consider improving your effectiveness as an eco-warrior by shopping smarter. (see Tips below).
In South Africa, thousands of food and other household items – think of your weekly shop: milk, cheese, yogurt, vegetables, meat, fish, chicken, pork, butter, margarine, bread, cereals, spreads, sauces, pasta, rice, sugar, mouthwash, toothpaste, etc. – are packaged in plastic.
Much of it is packaged in PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, an inert plastic that is completely safe when it comes to storing food and beverages. PET is also lightweight, unbreakable, recyclable – and recycled at a higher rate than other plastics.
The national industry body responsible for driving PET recycling, PET Recycling Company (PETCO, points out that over 65% of PET is recycled, most of it bottles. Its latest statistics show that 98 649 tonnes of post-consumer PET plastic bottles were recycled last year alone, equivalent to 6.2 million PET plastic bottles a day1.
To help improve on that, the organisation recently released designing for recyclability guidelines that focus on the design of PET plastic packaging to facilitate recycling. Importantly, the guidelines are driven by the requirements of the mechanical recycling process in South Africa specifically.
While an essential how-to guide for designing PET plastic packaging that works for both the product and for planet, there’s also information that can help avid recyclers improve their recycling rates by being more savvy shoppers.
“Every material has pros and cons, but increasingly emotions are driving our feelings towards them – take the current anti-plastic wave as an example. This has some people calling for plastic alternatives that are not yet catered for by the local recycling stream,” said South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) CEO, Charlotte Metcalf.
“It’s important we all keep a level head, and don’t demand change which might not be in the best interest of the environment. Trucost calculated that substituting plastic in consumer products and packaging with alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from US$139 billion to US$533 billion.
“Buying food and beverages in PET packages that have been designed for recyclability – and then recycling those – is currently the best option for South Africa. But across all packaging types, our industries are working tirelessly to improve.
“There are high recycling rates of PET and South Africa has technology to close the loop viz the bottle-to-bottle recycling effort driving the circular economy for PET packaging; we see collaboration between industries; clean-up efforts and so on. There’s plenty of good news to celebrate. More, if consumers strive to get SANBWA members’ bottles in the right bins this December – they are designed to be recyclable.”
Metcalf added that all SANBWA members are committed to ensure that their packaging is 100% recyclable. They are in the process of being audited by PETCO as part of the SANBWA Packaged Water Standard, and are committed to correcting any short-coming the organisation finds in its bottles. The revised SANBWA Packaged Water Standard is the only standard in the word that includes sustainability requirements.
Tip 1: Look for wide necks which allow bottles to be placed upside down to drain all of the contents without any residue being left behind. This applies mostly to the ‘sauce’ and similar segments of the market, as well as liquid soaps and detergents.
Tip 2: Choose wisely and by numbers. For example, avoid PVC as its similar appearance to and overlapping range of densities with PET make the two polymers difficult to separate. This can result in PVC contamination and render large amounts of PET useless for most recycling applications. PET can be identified by a small number ‘1′ on the container. PVC is identified by a ‘3′.
Tip 3: Select clear or very lightly tinted packaging as these have the highest commercial value for recycling. Green and brown packaging can be recycled but has a much lower value than clear bottles and might be left behind by the waste pickers and recyclers.
Tip 4: Avoid products that have the label printed directly onto the pack or the bottle. The ink contaminates the PET and renders it unrecyclable. Batch or date information is the exception as suppliers use lasers, which don’t use ink. Other labels to avoid are shrink-sleeves and metallised or foiled labels. These are costly to remove, increase contamination and have the potential to devalue the collected material. They also increase the rejection rate in the sorting line and reduce the yield.
Tip 5: If you are going to be shopping for food or beverages in a new environment – like a holiday destination or a family members’ suburb – scope out the recycling collection bins first and tailor your shop. There’s no point buying glass, aluminium or cardboard instead of PET if there’s no clear glass, can or cardboard collection points.
Note 1: PET trays and blister packs (alongside all plastic trays) are not currently collected and recycled in South Africa. This will be addressed soon by PETCO and its members.