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Why plastics are not entirely bad

By Peter Theuri | August 4th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Joyce Waweru, the Country Programme Manager of Kenya PET Recycling Company.

Joyce Waweru is the Country Programme Manager of Kenya PET Recycling Company (Petco), a company incorporated in 2018 to represent the Kenyan PET (polyethylene terephthalate) industry’s joint effort to self-regulate.

She talks to Financial Standard about the company’s forays in waste management and why it is impracticable and nearly impossible to ban plastic use. 

Who are members of Petco and what’s your main role?

PETCO ropes in players from the entire plastic value chain, starting with manufacturers down to collectors. We focus on PET products, which include a lot of beverage bottles, cooking oil containers and body oil bottles. There is a whole array of plastics in widespread use.

Our role is to promote extended user responsibility and ensure plastic waste is collected and recycled into new products. Petco is based on a similar model started in South Africa 15 years ago.

Our members include producers of drinks such as Coca-Cola, Bidco, House of Peptang; retailers such as Naivas, Tuskys; and many other industrial experts. In the country, we have 13 registered recycling companies for PET, and we have contracted four of them.

Has there been an improvement in plastic waste collection since Petco came into place?

Yes. Last year, the plastic recycling rate was 30 per cent. There were more than 300 million bottles taken into recycling.

The year before, the recycling rate was at eight per cent. We have been offering financial subsidies to recyclers which are, in turn, passed on to collectors. The purchase price for every kilo of collected bottles was five shillings before we came in. We have taken that up to Sh23, which was the rate pre-Covid.

The subsidies mean we can offer more money for collectors, which boosts rates of collection. We have organised the whole value chain into a cohesive system, creating crucial interlinkages that help make work easier.

How has Covid-19 affected collection?

We usually have the bottles crushed then extruded into pellets that are exported to say Asia and Europe for making fibre. This fibre is then used to process pillows, articles of clothing, duvets and other geotextiles.

Trays and disposable containers that are used in the hospitality industry are also minted from this. Covid-19 has disrupted the whole supply chain as demand has greatly tanked. We experienced a 90 per cent reduction in demand in March, April and May.

Again, fear of contamination has affected collectors. Waste collectors are now afraid of segregating material so they could pick what is recyclable. They are taking everything to the dumpsite. Covid-19 has thus badly affected collection.

Has the 2017 ban on plastic bags helped reduce plastic waste pollution?

Polyethylene is always in very high use, and PET materials are thus ubiquitous. One can acquire them on the go and could similarly dispose of them on the go.

We can say that we have witnessed maybe even up to 90 per cent reduction of plastics and mainly bags strewn all over. But that is an estimation based on what we see. 

What does the ban on the single-use plastics in protected areas mean?

A ban is only as good as the government’s initiative to implement it. With the onset of Covid-19, we are all expected to carry with us sanitisers in single-use bottles.

People will want to carry water in single-use plastic bottles as they seek to limit interaction that would increase risk of contracting Covid-19. It might be hard to enforce the directive of people not using plastics in such areas.

Instead, Kenya Wildlife Services and Kenya Forest Services should, for example, deploy a framework to control the waste. A practicable solution should be reached because with the fear of communal services, people will want to package their drinks in disposable plastic bottles. 

Why can’t we do away with plastics altogether?

Plastic ranks top in the list of sustainable materials. It is able to keep the product it is transferring safe, does not break easily and makes the cost of movement quite easy and economical. It is a very convenient product to use.

Has the government done enough for the plastic industry?

Yes. The National Environment Management Authority and Ministry of Environment long thought of management of waste post-consumer and that is evident through the formulation of the Sustainable Waste Management Bill, 2019. It is good that they recognise the ban on plastics is not the most effective move.  

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