July is ~officially~ Plastic Free month, so we took some time to chat to Kara Levy; marketing officer at PETCO and the brain behind Tread Lighter (a platform for provoking thought & encouraging more conscious living/consumption choices); about the role plastic plays in our everyday lives, the South African recycling industry and ways we can reduce our plastic consumption and waste. If you want to read up on Plastic Free July and how you can get involved, click here.
Tell us about yourself and what you do at PETCO.
My name is Kara, the earliest thing I can remember about knowing what I wanted to do for a career was when I was in grade 9. I was studying design had to come up with an advertising campaign for anything we wanted. I was inspired by the work done by the WWF, so I created a campaign about water conservation.
I went into advertising – I worked at Ogilvy – because I loved the idea of changing perceptions through creative executions. I’ve always had an interest and passion for sustainability and the environment, and after implementing a recycling program at Ogilvy, I realised, as cliché as it sounds, that I wanted to put my values to work.
I was and continue to be the person always trying to educate and change perceptions around recycling, sustainability and consumerism. When the opportunity to work at PETCO came around, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Now I am the marketing officer at PETCO.
What is PET?
PET forms the basis for synthetic fibres like polyester. You’ll recognise it as the rigid plastic used as bottles for carbonated soft drinks, bottled water, milk, juice, sports and energy drinks, jars, punnets, tubs and trays for food items, bottles for household, personal care and pharmaceutical products, and sheet and film for general packaging.
How can people identify PET?
You can look for the little number 1 in the triangle, called the polymer identification code, near the bottom or underneath your plastic PET bottle. This is not a recycling logo, and doesn’t represent how many times the packaging has been recycled or can be recycled. It only identifies the material that the packaging is made from.
So, what does PETCO do?
PETCO, the PET Recycling Company, is South Africa’s national industry body accountable for managing the PET plastic industry’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) oh behalf of our members. In layman’s terms, we make sure plastic bottles are collected and recycled. (You can read more about how this works here or email email@example.com)
We make sure that PET that is produced in South Africa is recycled in South Africa, for the benefit of South African citizens.
PETCO works in 5 areas:
1) Work with our recycling partners on commercial-scale recycling projects, 2) Support collection and training, 3) Educate and create awareness around PET plastic recycling, 4) Assist with the provision of PET infrastructure and equipment, 5) Work with informal collectors to assist with their training and development.
Living every day in a way that your actions won’t have too big of an impact on the environment and ecosystem around you.
What would you say some of the most eye-opening things about the recycling industry has been?
Specifically for the PET plastic bottle space, I was surprised to see the sophisticated level of infrastructure and collection mechanisms right here in South Africa. We have recycling rates on par with Europe, and we are one of the only countries that weren’t extremely negatively affected when China stopped taking in recyclables because we have the infrastructure to process our own PET plastic bottles here.
There is a big difference between packaging being recyclable vs. what actually gets recycled. Something can be recyclable in one city in SA, and not in another. Whether there is the collection mechanism and infrastructure to recycle something in a certain region determines whether that material ends up in landfill or not. Something is more likely to be collected for recycling if there is value associated with it; e.g. Johannesburg has the majority of PET recycling infrastructure as this is where the majority of consumption takes place; the further a recyclable has to travel from where it is discarded to where it will be recycled, the higher the cost of recycling it.
How resourceful South Africans are – we receive daily calls and queries from people who care for the environment and who want to start recycling businesses. I am constantly amazed by how people want to make positive changes in their lives. It has also been eye-opening to see how many income opportunities are created through recycling – I always thought that recycling was purely for the environment, but here in SA where we have such issues with unemployment, recycling feeds to so many mouths. In 2019, it created 65 900 income opportunities. An income opportunity equates to one waste picker collecting 200 bottles per day for 240 days per year. One tonne contains 33 000 bottles.
What are your views on plastic and how has your relationship with plastic changed since working at PETCO?
Before I started working at PETCO, I used to demonise plastic and see it as a pariah. I did a lot to try and banish any form of plastic from my life. Now, I still believe that you should reduce, reuse, refurbish, recycle (the classic waste hierarchy), but I have learned about the many versatile and important roles that plastics play in our lives. Our lives without it would be much more inconvenient, we would have much more food waste and products would be much more expensive.
I think people today are very quick to demonise plastic, but it is important to also look at human behaviour like littering, etc. and look at the role that humans have in the eventual outcome of plastic ending up in the environment.
How would you say you have adapted your daily habits when it comes to plastic and consumption?
Wherever I can, I ask to not get packaging, but obviously there are some places where that is not possible but a simple one is when you are clothes shopping, do you really need a branded bag? Can’t you put it in your handbag or your reusable one? I like to think, “How long am I going to get use of this added packaging?” and refuse it if it is short and there is an alternative. Where I can do “nude” shopping I do. Usually, when you ask, you get. I don’t go anywhere without my reusable coffee cup or my reusable shopping bags. A really interesting study done by the CSIR has recently come out about the Life Cycle Assessments of plastic carrier bags – it says that a strong HDPE bag and recycled polyester bags are the best ones to use.
What are some of the “easy-wins” people can start applying to their lives?
TIP #1: Try to avoid PET bottles that are covered with heavily-inked shrink sleeves with no perforation to tear them off.
Shrink-sleeves are usually made of a material called PVC. PVC is similar in appearance and density to PET which makes the two polymers difficult to separate in the recycling process. It will likely mean that your bottle will end up in landfill or in the environment as collectors won’t collect it.
TIP #2: Choose your drink in PET plastic bottles that are clear and light blue.
- Clear bottles have the highest commercial value for recycling. They can be turned right back into brand new bottles
- Green and brown bottles are also recycled but have a much lower value than clear bottles. They are usually turned into polyester fibre, the material that is in our clothing, or used for cars mats or duvet/pillow stuffing (to name a few.)
- Try to avoid bottles that are bright, fluorescent, opaque or metallic in colour – because these bottles are not collected for recycling and will end up in the waste stream i.e. the landfill or the environment.
TIP #3: Try to avoid bottles that have ink printed directly onto the bottle as it contaminates the PET and therefore deems the bottle unrecyclable.
TIP #4: Try to avoid buying bottles with labels that are not easy to remove from the bottle e.g. the glue stays on the bottle after the label is removed
TIP #5: Have a look on the labels to see if they state that the packaging is recyclable or not, or buy without packaging where you can.
TIP #6: Start separating at source at home, that means separating your recyclables from non-recyclables at home.
Which IG accounts would you suggest people follow?
I’ve listed a few of my favourites below. You will see most of them are sites that are finding uses for products. At the end of the day, recycling only works if there is a demand for recycled materials, so the more products can be made from recycled materials the quicker we can start to move towards a circular economy:
- @materiom_: for learning about how to use new materials in new and interesting ways for the products we already have
- @gomidesign: for a great example of how to use non-recyclable plastic in a beautiful way
- @cupclub_: because I hate single-use coffee cups
- @saharvest: for an incredible initiative that saves food from landfills
- @realpreciousplastic: they show the verstatlity of plastic and what it can be transformed into
- @twygmag: for all things sustainable lifestyle
- @notpla: for seeing how to use not PLA for packaging
- @loopstore_us: for a great new approach to packaging solutions
I never leave the house without....
My Stojo coffee cup (mostly when travelling as it folds up) or ecoffee cup, a Tupperware (in case I need to get a takeaway something) and two foldable shopping bags that permanently live in my handbag.