South Africa recycled 1.15 million tonnes of paper and paper packaging in 2021, representing a paper recovery rate of 61.4%.
“The 2021 recovery rate reflects a decline of nine from the prior year, which can be attributed to COVID-disrupted supply chains exiting 2020 and into 2021, as well as a change in the economy and buying trends,” said Jane Molony, executive. Director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA).
South Africa has a largely thriving paper recycling economy, with an average five-year paper recovery rate of around 70%. “The country has been using recycled paper as a raw material in fabrics and packaging products since 1920,” Molony noted.
The 9% drop does not mean the country is recycling less paper. There was slightly more paper collected in 2021 than in 2020 (1.10 million tonnes), in fact.
However, the consumption of paper and paper packaging increased by 17% year-on-year, causing the percentage to drop.
Last year, more paper products were also released as brands shifted from plastic to paper packaging. Additionally, businesses and schools have reopened.
The association is cautiously optimistic about 2022 recycling statistics, as first quarter figures show a slight increase. “Waste paper is a commodity and is subject to market dynamics and cycles. All over the world, there has been a significant demand for recycled fibers,” she added.
The country produced 2.1 million tons of paper and paper packaging in 2021, imported 760,000 tons and exported 545,000 tons. This brings the apparent consumption of paper and paper packaging to 2.31 million tonnes.
The paper recovery rate explained
Prior to the pandemic, some of South Africa’s recyclers and manufacturers secured storage space for waste paper so that they could continue to buy inventory and meet market demands. “We entered the pandemic period with a surplus of waste paper, but in 2021 this surplus has run out. It lowered the recovery rate percentage,” Molony continued.
The important aspect to note is that the paper did not end up in landfills. It is still in the system as stock.
Recoverable paper excludes papers unsuitable for recovery such as tissue paper products, cigarette papers as well as corrugated cardboard boxes which leave our shores with fruit, wine and other exports. The country exported some 574,000 tons of paper packaging in 2021.
“The use of more pulp, paper and paper packaging should not be frowned upon as causing deforestation or being bad for the environment. South African pulp and paper mills only use wood fibers from sustainably managed plantations.Once mature trees have been harvested, new trees are planted, ensuring a sustainable supply and increased carbon uptake and, of course, carbon storage in wood products harvested, including the paper,” she explained.
The key to successful paper recycling is source separation by consumers, including businesses, schools and academic institutions, and the infrastructure to support collection from consumers.
Clean, dry paper is essential. Informal recycling collectors and waste traders will earn a better rate if the paper is of good quality.
“We also need to bridge the gaps between our technical capacity to recycle, recovery and collection infrastructure, and most importantly consumer awareness, education and behavior change,” Molony concluded.
Since 2003, the South African paper industry has diverted more than 20 million tonnes of paper and paper packaging from landfills.
This saved 62 million cubic meters of landfill space. If baled, the amount of paper would go 1.5 times around the equator.