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SA recycled 161 rugby fields’ worth of paper and paper packaging in 2022

Published Sep 19, 2023

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Johannesburg - Thanks to the waste separation efforts of conscientious citizens, businesses, schools and the greater recycling industry, South Africa recycled just under 1.3 million tons of paper and paper packaging in 2022. If baled and laid out, this would cover 161 rugby fields.

Communications manager of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (Pamsa), Samantha Choles, said the same amount would weigh as much as 208 553 mature African elephants, or fill 1 502 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“More importantly, it saved 3.8 million cubic metres of landfill space, and ensured that the paper industry could re-use the fibre in cardboard boxes, grocery bags, egg boxes, newspapers, and tissue products. We are certainly seeing more paper packaging entering the market as several brands are shifting to paper, especially in primary packaging - the packaging that contains the item,” she said.

Packaging sustainability trends are affecting demand for paper with big brands reducing plastic in their packaging, or at least aiming for single material packaging that is locally recyclable.

In 2022, South Africa produced 1.96 million tons of pulp, paper, board and tissue, importing just over one million tons and exporting 540 000 tons. This put the apparent consumption of paper and paper packaging at 2.45 million tons.

Choles added that toilet paper and other tissue products were neither collectable nor recyclable, and therefore excluded from what was available for collection. In 2022, two million tons were deemed collectable. This excluded 410 000 tons of secondary corrugated packaging comprising export fruit, wine and other products. Similarly, Pamsa included the corrugated packaging, containing imported goods, which therefore became available for the recycling market.

Choles added that the paper recycling rate for 2022 was 61%. While this was lower than previous years, it was still comparable with more developed nations such as the US (68%) and Europe (70%).

“Recycling statistics should not be viewed in isolation year on year. A lower recycling percentage does not mean that South Africa is recycling less paper. In volume terms, 2022 was higher than previous years,” Choles said.

Recycling is a flow-process, affected by market trends and volatilities, with paper grades taking six to nine months to move through various steps in the supply chain, such as manufacturing and conversion, packing, transit, consumption, and eventually collection and recycling. The latter entails collection by various entities, sorting, then repulping and finally manufacturing and conversion into new paper products. Thus the recycling rates will be affected by how quickly the volumes of paper pass through the market.

The global “Trend Tracker Survey 2023”, spearheaded by Two Sides, questioned more than 10 000 consumers from 16 countries on their preferences and opinions regarding various packaging types, their attributes and their impact. Some 62% of respondents said they recycled paper and paper packaging at home, and 78% understood the types of products that needed to go into the recycling bin.

“This is great news and we hope this will improve as awareness around waste separation and recycling increases. Clean and dry paper is essential. Informal recycling collectors and waste traders will earn a better rate if the paper is of good quality. Consumers must keep wet waste away from dry recyclables. If paper and cardboard get wet, it starts to degrade making the items less recyclable. Good fibre in, better products out,” she said.

Separate bins in the home, and putting a box or bag of clean recyclables on the pavement for recycling collectors were two ways to make a difference, and keep products out of landfill.

“Even with a five-year average paper recycling rate of 67%, we hope that the extended producer responsibility regulations and the various industry programmes will help close the gaps between South Africa’s technical capacity to recycle, infrastructure to recover and collect, and consumer awareness, education and behaviour change,” said Choles.

Choles concluded that the “Trend Tracker Survey 2023” also revealed that less than 70% of South African consumers surveyed believed that only recycled paper should be used - from printing to packaging to tissue products.

“Many people don’t realise that paper fibres are not infinitely recyclable as they shorten after each “recycle” and do not bond well to make new paper. Fresh virgin fibre from sustainably farmed wood will be added to strengthen the pulp recipes.”

The Saturday Star