Closing the loop on plastic bottle recycling
Drinks producers betting on full-bottle recycling in Jamaica with Recycling Partners of Jamaica
Chairman of Recycling Partners of Jamaica Dr Damien King shows the number on the underside of a plastic bottle which indicates what type of plastic it is made of. Bottles with the number 1 in the recycling logo are PET plastic bottles while those with the number 2 are HDPE plastics. (Photo: Garfield Robinson)

RECYCLING Partners of Jamaica (RPJ) is setting its sights on full production of preforms for plastics bottles from recycled material and is now in the process of investing up to $1 billion to set the stage to do so, if feasibility studies show it is prudent.

The company, which is a legal charity with membership made up of all the major producers of beverages sold in plastic bottles, currently collects, packages, and ships plastic bottles for further recycling overseas. It is, however, now banking on internalising some or all recycling functions.

"When you export a bale [of bottles] you are exporting mostly air. When you clean them and cut them up into flakes, then you are exporting something which is more dense and, therefore, it's more efficient to get a higher value for them, and, you know, shipping costs per dollar of value ends up being lower. So we are looking into taking it further along the process to flakes initially and maybe to pellets and ultimately to preforms, and preforms are what can go into new products more readily," Dr Damien King, chairman of Recycling Partners of Jamaica told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.

Baling is the process of crushing bottles and packaging them in cubes.

Five Gallon preforms and the bottles that are produced from them..

Currently bottles which are baled are packed in containers and shipped to Nicaragua where they are washed and cut up into flakes after being sorted by colour. Those flakes are then sent to the United States where they are transformed into new product, including bottles.

At the moment RPJ collects about 15 per cent of the plastic bottles sold with produce by the beverage manufacturers, about 12 million bottles per month. That is up from 5 per cent when RPJ started two-and-a-half years ago.

"Their goal in the next two years is to close the loop and start making bottles from the recycled material," William Mahfood, chairman of Wisynco Group, which is the biggest contributor to RPJ, said at his company's investor briefing in late September. Each drink producer which uses plastic bottles contribute $1 to RPJ, which is used to pay for bottles and other expenses. These producers include Wisynco Group, Pepsi Jamaica, GraceKennedy, Lasco, Big Joe, etc.

"So it's basically all of the significant players in the market...that came together and re-established RPJ to proactively and pre-emptively solve a problem that their industry was held to be responsible for," King observed.

The Wisynco Group is the biggest contributor to Recycling Partners of Jamaica by virtue of being the biggest producer of drinks in plastic bottles in Jamaica. (Photo: Garfield Robinson)

For King, the programme has so far been successful.

RPJ is collecting more bottles than it can handle and its six depots across the island are now stacked sky high. The depot at Lakes Pen in St Catherine handles the bulk of plastic waste gathered in the Corporate Area and St Catherine. Trying to approach the onsite office was a challenge as the driveway was blocked by bales ready to be shipped for recycling.

"The bottleneck now is baling capacity, King said, adding that the use of the pun was deliberate. "And so we are actively in the process of expanding our baling capacity by a factor of three."

That expansion, he said, should see RPJ probably being capable of baling up to 40 per cent of the bottles that would otherwise have found their way into the environment.

This illustration that was used in Australia sums up what the numbers on plastics really mean. It should help to guide a person in whether the type of material they are using is recyclable.

"Most of it is from improper disposal. But having said that, since we are collecting them, then we are seriously exploring all the other ways to make sure recycling happens," King continued.

Part of making that happen, will come from the new investment the entity is now undertaking, starting with the purchase of bigger and faster baling machines.

Mahfood, at his recent investor briefing, said the "focus specifically in the next year or on growing...the collection of recycling materials. RPJ will be investing in larger equipment, more trucks, and larger plants to process the material. The early estimate of these investments is $1 billion". The indication, so far, is that it could be more.

With that investment, King said the aim is to "collect the overwhelming majority of the bottles. RPJ wants 80 per cent of the bottles being collected in about five years". He said it is not necessary for RPJ to collect all the bottles itself, pointing out that other recycling entities in Jamaica are part of the drive to rid the environment of plastic bottles.

Andrew Mahfood, CEO of Wisynco, added in a telephone call with Sunday Finance: "One of the things we need is the volume of plastics from the collection. Once they get to a stage where the returns are at a quantity enough to supply the machines to make the recycled bottles, then it would make sense to go into further processing."

The Wisynco Group CEO added that other players in the drinks industry are keen on meeting that target, even though he pointed out that using recycled plastic to make bottles may be more expensive than using virgin plastic.

"The recycling is highly encouraged from the determination of the beverage producers," the Wisynco CEO was quick to point out after acknowledging the cost differential. But he said he is not daunted because "it is something the industry is looking at" and not just Wisynco.

He also pointed out that his company is being pushed towards the objective of closing the loop with regards to its plastic bottle packaging.

"Coca Cola has a 2030 objective which essentially says, for every bottle we put into the economy, we must take back one bottle," Mahfood said. Wisynco produces Coca Cola under licence and is currently in the top two producers of plastic bottle drinks along with Pepsi Jamaica.

But not all plastic bottles are taken in by RPJ for recycling.

"We take two kinds of bottles, PET [polyethylene terephthalate] and HDPE [high-density polyethylene]," he outlined as he explained, "and you know what those kinds are because if you turn over the bottles and you look at the bottom of it, then you see a number in the triangular arrows. And if it says one, it's PET, and if it says two, its HDPE," he said as he reached for a bottle and turned it over to demonstrate what he was saying. (He noted after checking a few bottles that some had the mark, but not all.)

The number King referred to on the bottom of plastics is not a recycling symbol but rather a plastic or resin identification code. It advises what type of plastic the item is made from but not if it is recyclable. In fact, plastic is numbered all the way up to seven, with each number representing a different type of plastic.

Workers at RPJ's depot in Lakes Pen, St Catherine, stack bales of bottles ahead of exporting them.Garfield Robinson

"Numbers one and two are quantitatively most of the problem here," King continued. He says while he doesn't know what percentage both account for out of total plastic waste in Jamaica, he added, "if I were to guess nine-tenth of the plastics here is PET or HDPE. I wouldn't be far wrong."

But getting the work done is stifled by bureaucracy.

"When we were established the Government had indicated that they were going to assist us by providing public land that we could put our recycling on, and we haven't got any. And, indeed, when we have identified public land ourself, the bureaucratic process to get access to it, getting all the approvals from National Land Agency and getting all the approvals from National Environment and Planning Agency and getting the approvals from municipal corporations, which when you add it up is a good eight, nine, 10 different approvals that have to take place. That process has gone so slowly that, that is frustrating."

The Lakes Pen, St Catherine depot of Recycling Partners of Jamaica. (Photo: Garfield Robinson)

Still, he said it's pleasing to see the public's response and hopes it will continue. King says he wants to have every Jamaican, rich and poor, rural and urban taking bags of plastic bottles to skips within walking distance of their homes or at the gas station, schools, churches, etc.

People are paid to return these bottles, and King hopes that will act as an incentive to get more people to recycle.

King, an economist, argued against those who believe an economist would not get into the line of business he is in.

Preforms and the bottles they are blown into for consumable products. RPJ is aiming to enter the market for preforms in a few years instead of exporting the bottles for recycling.

"I don't think economists shy away from the environment at all. Economics is about exposing decision-makers to the real cost and benefits of their actions. So what economists will tell you is that your failure to take account of externalised costs leads to poor economic decision. So economists want you to include environmental costs. In the same way that we recognise that when you have a market where you have positive externalities, you know good things that benefit other people other than two people in the exchange, or negative externalities that are bad things that fall upon people other than those in the exchange, when you have either positive or negative externalities we call it a market failure. So environmental destruction as a result of economic activity represents a market failure. Economists don't celebrate market failures. Economists know that market failures call for action on the part of Government to compensate for and mitigate the market failure."

He said to boost recylcing to reduce the incidence of market failures efforts are being made to make the process of returning plastic bottles much easier.

"That means putting in place the cages that we are putting throughout the island. We've gone about 300 so far, so that anybody who is separating their plastics can take their bag of plastic bottles and deposit it in a cage nearby."

Bottles at the RPJ Lakes Pen depotGarfield Robinson

He admits readily that 300 cages are inadequate to collect most of the plastic bottles that are sold in Jamaica.

"The next thing we're doing now is not just those big cages for people that are separating their plastics at home. We are now about to start putting in place recycling trash bins in public places, like in parks and on the sidewalk, so that if you're drinking an individual drink, you don't put it in the garbage receptacle, you put it in the recycling receptacle."

"Second thing that we are doing is, we are raising public awareness through our marketing and public education campaign that this is something that people should be doing. And the third thing is that we are paying for the plastic. So, if you want to monetise it, then you can go on and collect plastic, register with RPJ as an official recycler, which basically means we take your details and you're issued with a payment card. So whenever you bring your bottles to one of our recycling depots we weigh them to see what it's worth and then pay you. That money goes onto your payment card."

Bottles in bales, separated by colour at RPJ's Lakes Pen depot (Photo: Garfield Robinson)

"It may help for RPJ to have enabling legislation. So, at the moment, the drinks manufacturers are voluntarily contributing a levy of $1 on a per bottle basis to fund our RPJ's work. So based on how many bottles that they're producing, they send us a cheque every month so that we can fund what we do. At some point we may need enabling legislation because even though all of the major bottlers are a part of it, it's voluntary. So maybe in the future some major bottler will decide, no, I don't want to be doing this anymore and they will need some compulsion."

But will the company only focus on plastics going into th future? What about recycling other materials that end up in the waste.

"Our mandate is to deal with plastic bottles. That does not rule out that once we have the infrastructure and logistics in place it might suit us to recycle other material just as a way of increasing our financial viability," he concluded.

BY DASHAN HENDRICKS Business content manager

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