Planet 4 min
Working together to end waste pollution
Interview with Philippe Montagné, Regional Project Director EMEA (Europe, Africa and Middle East) for the AEPW.
Working together to end waste pollution
Working together to end waste pollution

The AEPW in the field

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) was founded to develop and deploy solutions to tackle plastic waste pollution. Recognising that no single player can tackle the problem by itself, the Alliance’s credo is to forge partnerships with all stakeholders.
Close-up on South Africa, a country representative of AEPW's actions, and on some of the solutions tested by the Alliance in the developed markets.

What is so emblematic about the action being taken in South Africa?

Talking about South Africa makes me proud, because we feel that what we have been able to put in place over the last three years has become an example that we hope to replicate in other countries. To understand this, you have to realise that although South Africa has reached a good level of maturity, its population is still very fragmented, despite the end of apartheid 20 years ago…

 

Sorting centre (Power Rush) in Durban, South Africa.

There is still a large proportion of the population living, at worst, in shanty towns and, at best, in townships, neighbourhoods where the buildings are actually solid, but where the level of sanitation is barely acceptable. These neighbourhoods are organised and provide some public services such as schools. That is an important point!  However, waste collection often operates in degraded mode (one collection per week, non-selective sorting).

 As a country, South Africa is beginning to introduce waste management worthy of the name. It now has one of the highest recycling rates in Africa. For example, there is a EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) system. For a long time, similarly to what has happened in other so-called developing countries, a whole waste trade has been set up on an informal basis. It is a chain that includes waste pickers who collect waste such as plastic, metal or even glass packaging and sell it to aggregators, who in turn sell it to recyclers. In most cases, the waste is washed, crushed into granules and put back on the market to be converted into new plastic items. These informal waste collectors are part of a vulnerable, exploited population, very often made up of women, and number in the hundreds of thousands around the world. Some countries, such as South Africa, are working to integrate this hidden population into their municipal waste management systems. Through its projects, the Alliance has become a catalyst for the integration of the informal sector.

More specifically, what actions have you taken in this country?

South Africa is one of the countries in which we are carrying out the three types of project mentioned above and these cover the country’s three main cities.

They range from very ambitious projects such as the one we are implementing in several townships in Durban, where we have succeeded in organising, with the South African Healthcare Foundation (SAHF), a local NGO, a system for collecting and sorting recyclable waste using a dozen facilities handed over by the municipality. We have refurbished and equipped these facilities.

 

Sorting centre (Big Start) in Durban, South Africa.

 The aim of this 4-year programme is to collect and sort over 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year. A year and a half into the project, we have already reached 15,000 tonnes per year, making it the Alliance’s leading project in terms of tonnage.

To encourage waste collection, we are also setting up buy-back centres for recyclable materials in various locations throughout the area. The social impact has been huge: several thousand waste pickers are now involved in the project. Educational programmes have also been set up in more than 50 schools. The aim is to teach students to identify and sort plastic waste, and to encourage them to collect it at home. And it is working, with more than 80 tonnes of plastic waste are brought to the schools every month. The project has been so successful that the City of Durban has asked us to extend it to the whole city.

 

Primary school children explaining selective sorting at home. Durban, South Africa

In Johannesburg, informal waste pickers have been organising themselves since 2018, creating a sort of professional union called the African Reclaimer Organisation (ARO). The Alliance has helped this organisation establish credibility in the eyes of the municipality by funding their main warehouse. Employees come here to sort the recyclable items collected nightly in the residential areas of Johannesburg.  Not only plastics, but also glass, metals and cardboard — anything that has a market value. They are then sold on to recyclers. In addition to improving the ARO’s working tools, the Alliance’s action is helping to integrate this underground workforce into South African civil society. Waste pickers are given a social security number, an identity card and a minimum wage. I should add that we are now also supported by the Ministry of the Environment and the City of Johannesburg, who fully recognise ARO’s professionalism. This organisation is well on its way to becoming the main structure for collecting recyclable materials from households. This is why we are committed to working with this organisation over the long term, implementing a wider project that aims to recover 30% of Johannesburg’s recyclable waste, relying on 6,000 pickers who are now working in much more acceptable conditions.

 

ARO’s sorting workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa

 Finally, I would like to talk about Cape Town and more specifically CRDC, a local company that has developed a know-how in converting non-recyclable packaging waste such as multi-layer film (crisp bags) into a concrete additive. By changing the formulation of the concrete by replacing a few percent of the sand with this additive, the concrete becomes lighter.

Applications range from building rubble to paving slabs. Interestingly, this development started in Costa Rica, then spread to the United States, Australia and now South Africa. It just goes to show that recycling plastic waste can be an innovation factor and a source of savings on raw materials such as sand.

 

 

 

Advertisement for Resin8 made from non-recyclable plastic waste.

Finally, do you also have a social and even societal role to play?

Yes, and this is also an indirect mission of the Alliance. The fact is that as soon as we tackle the problem of waste in developing countries, we are dealing with human issues and the most disadvantaged classes of society. The example of South Africa is a textbook example that we want to replicate. Thanks to the action of our partners on the ground, illegal waste pickers as well as those working in collection and sorting are gradually being recognised and rewarded: they are being issued with an identity card, primary medical assistance, and even a minimum wage… As a result, hundreds of people are being lifted out of hidden poverty. In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, waste picking is often a job assigned to women, which helps them carve out a place for themselves in a highly patriarchal society. We also work extensively with primary and secondary schools, where we work with teachers to educate young children about the importance of waste management. Collection bins have been set up on the way to and from school, and every morning the schoolchildren put their household recyclable waste in them. And it is paying off, because it is now the youngest children who are passing on the message to their families.

You say you operate all over the world… Does this mean that you also target the developed countries?

Yes, although we are mainly active in emerging markets, in what is known as the Global South, where the plastic waste challenge is most evident. Up in the Global North, developed economies (such as Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea and others) already have effective waste management systems in place, so our focus tends to be on advancing recycling and waste sortation technologies.

 

HolyGrail — the invisible watermark code.

In these countries, we will be looking closely at new technologies and trying to validate solutions that do not yet exist. One of the most recent is HolyGrail 2.0. It involves printing a large number of imperceptible codes in the form of stamp-sized digital watermarks across the entire surface of a packaging.

 

 

The aim is that once the packaging enters a waste sorting facility, the digital watermark can be detected and decoded by high-resolution cameras on the sorting line. Depending on the information (food or non-food packaging, type of polymer, etc.), the camera is able to accurately direct the packaging into the appropriate streams. The result should be a significant increase in the recyclability of packaging, particularly in Europe, where regulations require that 100% of plastic packaging be reusable, easily recyclable or compostable by 2030. Holy Grail 2.0 is now in the final phase of R&D trials in Europe and the results are quite conclusive. P&G, a major brand that is a member of the Alliance, has joined us in this project, and its commitment is real. I would also like to mention an ongoing feasibility study that we are conducting with the Roland Berger consultancy firm. It looks at flexible plastic waste (plastic bags) and its recyclability on a large scale (plant capacity of 50,000 tonnes/year) into plastic food bags. The technological solution does exist. Is it economically viable, though? That is what our study aims to find out.

As a final example, let us mention Belgium, where we are working with a start-up called Rematics. Rematics uses artificial intelligence to improve waste collection by equipping bin lorries with smart sensors that can recognise the nature of the products collected in a matter of seconds. As a result, consumers who have incorrectly sorted their waste can be immediately alerted by email or text message so that they can sort them out correctly next time.

 

REMATICS intelligent waste recognition system.

All these initiatives remain in more or less advanced stages of testing, but they show that the awareness is growing globally and that even the developed markets still have room for significant progress.

 

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