The valuing plastic recycling scheme stopped in March 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the congregation and neighbours of Eluvukweni Church in Crossroads in Cape Town continued to collect recyclables. On Mandela Day (18 July 2020) volunteers emptied the storage container and sorted recyclables ready to sell once restrictions on recycling were lifted. The following video shows the work involved and what 240 kilograms of plastic looks like.
Why so much work?
Not all plastic has the same value. Bottles have to be divided into clear, green and blue coloured plastic. Bottle tops are taken off. Plastic has to be crushed so that it all fits into the container. Plastic bottles are only worth collecting if there is a lot of it because it is sold by the kilo. The scheme collects bottles because out of all the the different types of plastic, PET is worth the most money. The money raised from selling the plastic goes towards church funds.
How much money is all this plastic worth?
The value of PET plastic, as with all types of plastic, fluctuates according to market forces. This means the value of PET bottles rise and fall depending on supply and demand for two different types of PET. The first type is known as ‘virgin’ PET plastic. This plastic is made from resin produced by the petrochemical industry. Costs therefore increase and decrease according to global oil prices. The second type of recycled PET, known as rPET, and is partly made from PET bottles that have been collected and returned to be recycled. When oil prices rise, virgin PET becomes more expensive than rPET. When oil prices drop, virgin PET becomes cheaper than rPET. Understandably, manufacturers choose whichever material is cheapest. When virgin PET becomes cheaper than rPET, there is less demand for it and therefore its value drops.
How much did the plastic sell for?
The congregation and residents collected 240kg of PET plastic bottles. The receipt below shows the value of each different colour of plastic: blue (B); green (G); and clear (C). Clear bottles are worth three times as much as coloured plastic. This is because when it is recycled it can be made into a wide variety of things. Whereas coloured PET is pigmented which narrows down the number of things that the resultant rPET can be used for. Bottles tops (TOPS) are worth the same as a clear PET bottle. This is because tops are made from a different type of plastic. Tops and bottles together raised ZAR225 (GBP10.67). Aluminium cans were also collected (ALI CANS), worth over three times as much as plastic, which brought the total sale of recyclables to ZAR293.40
Is collecting plastic worthwhile?
It depends how you define worth. Financially, collecting plastic is not worth the amount of time, effort and labour that goes into storing, collecting, sorting and crushing it. Environmentally, collecting plastic is worthwhile. If bottles are not collected and recycled they end up in the environment. If plastic is burned, it creates toxic fumes and on a large scale can contribute to CO2 which speeds global warming. If plastic goes to landfill sites, it gets buried and can be converted into energy but this is expensive and more often it becomes part of a mountain of rubbish. In Cape Town, landfill sites are running out of space which is why the government have made zero waste targets. Alternatively, plastic becomes litter which drifts through streets because it is lightweight. As it slowly breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (micro plastic) it enters waterways and is ingested by animals.
So what happens next?
Teresa (researcher) will return to Cape Town to work with the Green Anglicans, to assess whether or not Eluvukweni Church would like to continue to run the scheme or not. This means taking into account the economic, environmental and social value of collecting plastic. Findings from the scheme will be written up and communicated to different audiences. These include other researchers, NGOs and charities who are considering similar schemes, government representatives, and industry representatives.