The Coca-Cola Company’s pivotal role in voluntary waste collection and recycling systems in South Africa is proving that industry-led programmes where manufacturers and producers take responsibility for their post-consumer packaging can be hugely effective.  

South Africa has seen an astonishing increase in recycling tonnage of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) with collection rates increasing from 14% in 2005 to 65% in 2017 of total PET volumes.  This puts the country ahead of some developed markets when it comes to collection rates, such as the EU (2016: 60%) and US (2016: 28.4%).

In a country that has seen PET consumption steadily rising over the past few decades as consumers turn to PET bottles for their flexibility, lightness and affordability, the Voluntary End Producer Responsibility programme (VEPR) represents what can be achieved when beverage manufacturers work alongside NGOs, communities and government to take responsibility for post-consumer packaging.

The Coca-Cola Company was one of the founding members of PETCO, a not for profit organisation which collects a voluntary recycling fee from converters and importers of PET resin.  This is then channelled to recycling partners for every kilogram of post-consumer PET that they buy from collectors, helping to sustain the recycling sector by increasing the value of collected PET.

This Voluntary End Producer Responsibility programme (VEPR) has proven pivotal to growing the recycling ecosystem in South Africa over the past 18 years into a thriving R250m/year industry, providing job opportunities for more than 64 000 waste pickers, and creating small, entrepreneurial waste collection businesses along the value chain.

But it requires significant financial support from manufacturers such as The Coca-Cola Company and its bottling partners in South Africa – Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa and Peninsula Beverages – to remain sustainable. 

Since the recycling of PET (as with many other waste streams) competes with, for example, the price of virgin materials, economic support through incentives or subsidies is often required to sustain the end-use, demand-side market. For over a decade, Coca-Cola has provided support in the form of a recycling fee paid to PETCO.  The Company also purchases between 9 000 -10 000 tonnes per year of recycled material for use in its bottles, worth an estimated R160m.

At major recycling partner, Mpact Polymers, situated in Johannesburg, nearly 29 000t of post-consumer PET bottles are being processed at the R350m state-of-the art facility each year to produce 21 000t of recycled PET (rPET) for food and beverage packaging.  It is one of only seven such operations worldwide that meets the Coca-Cola Company’s full certification for PET bottles to package their soft drinks. 

After a process of compacting, heating, flaking and rolling, tiny round pellets created from waste PET bottles will make their way into thumb-sized pre-forms – the plastic moulds that make millions of new beverage bottles.

The VEPR model dovetails with The Coca-Cola Company’s World Without Waste strategy.  Not only has it committed to collecting 100% of its packaging in the form of one PET bottle for every one it sells by 2030, it also aims to ramp up the proportion of rPET to 50% in all its PET bottles, both still and carbonated, in the same time frame.

To achieve these ambitious targets, more PET will need to be collected, recycled and transformed into food grade quality. Coca-Cola bottlers, Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa (CCBSA) and Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages (CCPB) use around 50 000t of PET per year, but most post-consumer PET is still recovered from landfills, rather than separated at source. 

Since recyclers like Mpact pay collectors by weight, the dirtier the bottles, the more expensive they are to businesses like Mpact. Converting bottles from landfills into food grade material becomes less profitable because not only are they more expensive, but they also require additional cleaning and sterilising.

“Ultimately if more households and consumers separated their waste in their homes and businesses before collection and if they rinsed their PET bottles when empty, cost efficiencies would result along the reverse logistics supply chain,” says Dr Casper Durandt, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola Southern & East Africa and chairman of PETCO.

The Coca-Cola Company’s bottlers in South Africa are also helping to educate consumers about responsible waste management practices. Investment in community clean ups and programmes such as the Schools Recycling Programme, which saw 866 schools collecting more than 2 324t of waste this year, are beginning to bear fruit.

“As a culture of recycling and environmental sustainability grows, we should see a more sustainable supply of post-consumer PET developing,” says Durandt.   “In turn, we should see more investment in recycling infrastructure and capacity, helping to build sustainable PET recycling across the continent.”