Have you ever wondered why certain types of plastic bottles are plucked out of your rubbish by “trolly-preneurs” every week? These informal recyclers are looking for PET bottles that can be “sold” at buy-back recycling centres.
What makes PET (the acronym for a versatile plastic called Polyethylene Terephthalate) special is that it is one of the few polymers that can be recycled into the same form, such as a new beverage bottle, over and over again. Once its “bottle life” is over these bottles can still be recycled into PET fibres and used as duvet inners or other products.
PETCO, the PET plastic recycling company, reports that 157,760 tonnes (157,760,000 kg) of PET plastic bottles were produced in South Africa during 2018 and of this amount 98,649 tonnes (98,649,000 kg), or 63%, were recycled.
Diverting 63% of used PET bottles out of landfill is an impressive figure. Far from being rubbish, PET is a resource that can be collected and taken to buy-back recycling centres where collectors are reimbursed for what they bring in. You can tell by the numbering what plastic is used. Check under the base of the bottle. If it says “1” it’s made from PET.
Buy-back centres, such as those owned by PETCO members Jocelyn van der Ross, Nomlindelo “Pinky” Modisang, Nokubonga Mnyango and Quinette Goosen, are the first step in PET’s return to the “recycling” loop. When recycled, PET plastic bottles are turned into a variety of new and useful products, such as fibre-fill for duvets and pillows, PET trays for fruit, geotextiles, and even brand new bottles.
Meet some of the intrepid women who run plastic buy-back centres around the country, diverting thousands of kilos of PET plastic from ending up in landfills in South Africa every day.
Jocelyn van der Ross
Green Spot Recycling in Franschhoek
“I moved to Franschhoek about 15 years ago. When I arrived I asked myself ‘What can I do here to have an impact? How can I make a difference?’ I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing,” says Jocelyn, owner of Green Spot Recycling in Franschhoek. “That’s when I realised the potential in recycling and I started recycling wine bottles. Then I moved on to recycling PET (plastic bottle) and employed two people to help me.
“When I started out the only transport I had was my car. I would drive around and collect recycling myself. Now I have 15 employees, two bakkies on the road and a trailer.
Jocelyn is PETCO’s top woman recycler for 2019. Her passion for recycling has motivated her to keep going despite huge setbacks. Since starting the plastics buy-back business in 2005 Jocelyn has seen her pack sheds razed to the ground by three fires but she’s refused to give up. Undaunted, Jocelyn got her team together after the most recent fire, in 2018: “I told them we just have to start again. And we did.”
Jocelyn sells PET bales to businesses that convert the plastic into a variety of products. She also collects glass, paper and organic material for compost. “I want this recycling business to grow. I want to be the biggest woman recycler in South Africa,” she says. “My advice to South Africans is to seriously start recycling and give your contribution to mother earth.”
Green Spot Recycling weighs in:
Green Spot pays R1.20 for plastic bottles (PET) per kilo and collects 4,000 to 6,000 kg of PET a month.
Nomlindelo “Pinky” Modisang
Lindithando Construction & Projects Johannesburg
“I’ve been doing recycling for a long time now and people in my community know me,” says Pinky, who lives in the mid-Vaal area.
“Everywhere I go I am respected because of what I’m doing: I’m saving the planet,” says Pinky, PETCO’s “woman PET-trepreneur” of the year in 2016.
Pinky’s buy-back centre handles approximately 120,000 kilos of PET plastic per year and diverts it out of landfill and into conversion businesses.
“We specialise in PET plastics and I’ve got 10 guys working for me and they do all the collecting, baling, packing and sorting of bales. And then I have women working here who sort all the plastics into the different colours. That’s the thing with PET plastic bottles, they have to be sorted according to the different colours before they can be converted.”
When she spots potential in an employee she likes to encourage them. “I visit the different people who work for me at their homes and if I see they can work for themselves I will speak to PETCO and introduce them,” she explains. “PETCO helped me to set up my buy-back centre and it can do the same for others. In this way I help my employees so that they don’t have to work for me for ever.”
Lindithando Construction weighs in:
Lindithando pays R3 a kilo for PET plastic and collects up to 30,000 kg of PET per month.
Uthando Recyclers in Empangeni
Nokubonga Mnyango is a woman on a recycling mission. “In 2014 I was working at a company as a receptionist and driver. One day I was asked to take a bag of plastic to a PET recycling place and I was so interested I started asking questions,” says Nokubonga, the founder of Uthando Recyclers.
“I attended a PETCO workshop in Durban and I fell in love with recycling. I used to get up at 4am every day, go for a jog and collect plastic for two hours before I had to get home and get ready for work,” says Nokubonga.
Eventually Nokubonga decided that she couldn’t do both her receptionist job and her recycling work and she resigned from her office job to set up her own buy-back business.
In 2017 Nokubonga was awarded “PET-trepreneur” of the year at PETCO’s annual awards.
Apart from PET Nokubonga’s recycling centre also accepts other recyclables, such as glass and paper.
Once it is sorted and baled, the PET plastic is sold to businesses such as Mpact Recycling and Wildlands, where it is converted into recycled products.
“My husband – I call him ‘the man behind the scenes’ – helps me to run the business. It’s a lot of work and I’ve become a businesswoman through recycling,” says Nokubonga.
She runs Uthando Recyclers from her home where she has six full-time employees. “If we had our own site I could create more jobs,” she says wistfully. “I love what I’m doing because I love recycling and helping the environment. Recycling is life-changing,” she says.
Uthando Recyclers weighs in:
Uthando Recyclers pays R2 a kilo for PET plastic and collects 8,000kg of plastic bottles (PET) per month and 25,000kg of recyclable material per month (in total)
The Uitenhage Recycling Mula Swop-Shop Project
“When I retired from teaching I wanted to get involved in community work, especially with children. I believe they can still be taught about caring for the environment,” says Quinette, the founder of the Uitenhage Recycling Mula Swop-Shop Project. “I chose the recycling exchange project because it focuses on two of the most important challenges of our time: saving the environment and alleviating poverty.
“People think that Mula is a normal, traditional soup kitchen but it’s not. People bring in their plastic, we weigh it and exchange it for Mula credits that they can then swop for food,” she says. Quinette’s innovative Mula project was awarded PETCO’s Public Campaign of the Year in 2018.
“People walk for great distances to get here – some walk 10-15 km. Once a week the children bring their plastics to the shop and we weigh them, give them Mula credits and they can exchange these for food, toiletries, stationery and clothes.
“They have to make a choice between toys and food and we believe that this project has an environmental, educational, humanitarian impact on all the communities that we reach. We’re teaching the children to live sustainably.”
How does she do it all? “I’ve got a crack committee that’s been with me from the beginning and a great team of volunteers who keep the project going and the volumes of PET that we collect are huge.”
Uitenhage Recycling Mula Swop-Shop Project weighs in:
Since the project was started in June 2015, Mula has collected more than 910,266kg of PET plastic, more than 27,623kg of cardboard, and more than 8,000kg of non-recyclable items from communities, which are also visibly cleaner.
1kg of PET = 2 mula credits (to give you an idea of a mula’s worth: 1 cup of sugar = 1 mula)
Mula collects on average 4,431kg of plastic and 1,307kg of cardboard per month.
Picture credits: Fiona MacPherson