“Kenyans Want To Recycle Plastics, They Just Don’t Know How To” – PETCO Country Manager Joyce Gachungi

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“We envision a recycling culture where segregation at source becomes a norm, this means reduced dumpsite scavenging where the recycled material is coming directly from the consumer’s house to the recycling plant.” – Joyce Gachungi

Joyce Gachugi Waweru, is the country manager of PET company, trading as PETCO Kenya. PETCO Kenya is Kenya’s first and only voluntary producer responsibility organization and is formed against the backdrop and success of PETCO in South Africa, which is also an organization that is also mandated to manage consumer PET packaging.

Their responsibility as PETCO is to represent the manufacturers, converters, bottlers, brand owners and PET companies. PET is the material that makes drinking water bottles, juice bottles, milk bottles and now even sanitizer bottles. They represent those companies to make sure that after the products are used, the packaging is collected and taken for recycling to create new products.

I had an in-depth conversation with Joyce about the role of plastics in our lives, the effects of Covid-19 to the recycle chain and why we will never completely ban the use of plastics. She maintains that Kenyans are willing to recycle, they just need guidance and information.

How effective has the collection of used packaging being in Kenya so far?

There are some challenges, the first being that we are voluntary in nature meaning, we are not governed by any rule in the government’s policy. In the Solid Waste Management regulations, they talk about extended producer responsibility but they didn’t drill down on how to implement it. By not specifying this, it’s not mandatory for anyone that is producing or using PET packaging, to be responsible for it. There are no punitive measures for people who are going against the regulation. This is why we are voluntary in the sense that only those companies, entities or individuals aligned with this responsibility can join us.

We are financed in two ways; through extended producer responsibility fees, which we levy to these companies based on the amount of material they put into the market per month. The beverage sector is one of the most heavily taxed industries in the country. With this in mind, any beverage company willing to spend extra money on recycling is responsible and commendable. We currently have fourteen members, contributing 60% of the beverage sector. We have four categories; brand owners, converters, retailer and bottlers. These include Naivas, Almasi, Highland bottlers, House of Peptang, Unilever, Kevian, BIDCO and Coca Cola.

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In total, how many bottlers do we have in Kenya?

Today, we have 500 companies that are bottling water yet we only have 14 members on board in our company. We see this as a problem. This is can be contributed to the fact that PET collection is still voluntary, there’s no law that makes it mandatory for them to be with an organization like us. The remedy for this is the implementation of legislation.

Last year and early this year, the government has established two things. The National sustainable Solid Waste Management bill, that focuses on extended producer responsibility and how it can be anchored into the operations, and regulations of managing waste. The government also launched the extended producer responsibility for the organization.

This legislation is very important because the government envisions a situation whereby, if you’re producing PET, you are expected to be in an organization such as PETCO. Failure to follow these guidelines, your organization will incur almost two times or three times more taxes.

How long has PETCO being in operation and what are your achievements so far?

 We have been in operation for two years now. Last year we were able to recycle about 320 million bottles, which is about 7700 metric tonnes. This year has been slower because Covid-19 has slowed down production but our target was to recycle 8000 metric tonnes.

With the price of crude oil dropping as it has dropped, the cost of virgin resin which is the material used to make bottles is quite low right now. As a result of this, the demand for recycled bottles, has also gone down. The low cost of fuel has affected the demand for recycled material leading to a negative effect in the market. As a result of these effects, our board decided to provide extra support to recyclers and collectors for the next few months just to ensure that they get their businesses back on track because recycling has gone down by 95% after the pandemic. Out of 14 recyclers, only two have been in business. I am happy to report that since June, more recyclers are reopening, with our subsidy, we expect more to return to work and proceed with collection.

What percentage of the bottles we use are recycled material?

In Kenya, we do not actually have a bottle to bottle recycling plant. What we have instead, is mechanical recycling which basically means we take bottles at the initial stage and turn them into flakes or pellets. There are only two companies in Kenya that are turning recycled material into new products. One is making PET strapping and the other is making brush bristles. The rest of the recyclers, who make up around 90%, are exporting the pellets. These pellets are likely to end up as fibre for pillows or duvets.  Though we do not have bottle to bottle recycling, we are having the conversation at PETCO because we realise that this, if possible, would be the optimum conversion. It would also mean that more jobs would be created locally since we wouldn’t have to export any product. All the work would be done here in our factories. We are currently doing trials with an Australian company where we are testing whether our bottles are chemically viable to be recycled into new ones.

What would be the biggest hindrance to bottle to bottle recycling here in Kenya?

The biggest issue would have to be the collection of the said bottles because we do not have segregation at source. We are currently about to deploy pilot plans in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nyeri to test segregation at the source because without it, you cannot get uncontaminated bottles for recycling. We hope to get results in good time and come up with methods of scaling up the project with the help of the county governments and national government.

In June, the government banned single-use of plastics in protected areas, what is defined as a protected area?

In the beginning, there was actually no clear definition of what a protected area is. After having conversations with the government, we were able to determine what qualifies as so. We defined protected areas as; forests, beaches, areas of hospitality residing in beaches or near forests, parks, and conservancies. Before this conversation, there was really no clarification about what qualified as a protected area and what did not. I am glad that everything was finally put into perspective.

In your opinion, is it possible and realistic to totally ban plastics?

There is no country in the world that has successfully banned the use of PET bottles. What we have seen being successful is the ban on plastic shopping bags. They are banned here in Kenya, Rwanda India and other countries as well. The ban on bags was made successful by the fact that there was a realistic alternative.

For PET bottles, however, you have to remember that it is not only used in the beverage sector, but it is also used in the pharmaceutical industry for packaging medicines, the agrochemical industry for chemicals. With this in mind, it because quite challenging to effectively ban PET because there is a good reason as to why it is in use in the first place. A plastic bottle maintains the sanctity of the product inside it. For instance, you cannot put a carbonated drink in a tetra pack because it just couldn’t work. The other alternative would be to use Aluminium which is made ineffective by its high cost. The issue, therefore, should be centred around banning the PET, we should figure out better ways of managing post-consumer use.

From your experience at PETCO, what do you think about Kenyan’s attitude towards recycling?

From our observation and internal analysis, we have established that consumers want to recycle. We receive a lot of calls from resident associations, malls and other organizations asking us to avail drop off bins where they can collect materials to recycle. This shows that the desire to recycle is there and only needs to be guided. First education that needs to be done is to show consumers how they can differentiate types of plastics because they are not all the same. In fact, not all plastics are recyclable. There is a distinct difference between PET, HDPE and PP. This responsibility, however, is too big to fall on one entity, the private sector and government have to come together and work towards the common goal of educating and enforcing an informed culture of recycling.

What are some of the challenges that collectors face every day?

Most collectors actually live in the dumpsite and they have to scavenge through the garbage to sort out the plastics. Most of the garbage is toxic and pose a great health risk to the collectors. If we had better plans that would facilitate the collection of plastics at the homes, this would lessen the toxicity that the collectors are exposed to because they would be collecting relatively cleaner bottles. Cleaner bottles also mean that the price would be better.

Contaminated bottles often get rejected thus making it a loss for the collector. This is also the reason why we are trying to advocate for manufacturers to use bottles that are good for recycling because some of them do not meet the quality expected to recycle. Clear bottles are often the best for recycling. Multi-coloured bottles are of lower quality and subsequently attract a lower price. The dark the bottle gets, the cheaper it becomes whereas the clearest bottle fetches the best price.

How have these challenges been amplified by Covid-19?

The pandemic has led to a great decline not only in manufacturing but also in recycling. Without much to collect, the collectors have really struggled to make ends meets. As a company, have seen their plight and offered relief in the form of food. We saw food as the greatest way to offer support because we were in lockdown at the time and the collectors had nowhere to sell their product. We also provided them with PPE and washing stations.

How would you describe the sustainability of plastics in comparison to other materials?

Plastic is still the best in terms of packaging. Despite it being a ‘demonized’ material, it ranks highest in terms of the number of times it can be recycled when compared with other materials out there. Plastic is also very versatile compared to a material like glass. The raw material for making glass is sand yet sad harvesting has already been banned in some areas of the country. The cost of recycling glass does not even compare to the price of recycling PET because PET is way cheaper and affordable.

As PETCO, what is your ultimate vision?

We envision a recycling culture where segregation at source becomes a norm this means reduced dumpsite scavenging where the recycled material is coming directly from the consumer’s house to the recycling plant. We also want to have a situation whereby collectors are getting a fair share for the work they do. We want to ensure that collectors earn something significant according to the volume that they collect. This should be enough to cater for their food, education and livelihoods. Thirdly, we hope to see bottle to bottle recycling being a reality in Kenya. This is important for us because if we can achieve this, we will have met the threshold for creating a circular economy.

Find out more about Petco here.

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