Last week I spent a few hours learning about plastic recycling and sustainability at the PET Bottle Recyclers plant in Baba Dogo Nairobi. The company is responsible for recycling about 85% of plastic bottles in the city, mostly collected from dumpsites. Clearly, they are at the forefront of environmental protection and that aside, their operations also have a major impact on residents of the informal areas surrounding them since they are the ones who scavenge for empty bottles. They deliver them to the plant for a fee and therefore make some income to put food on their tables.
Effects of plastic waste on the environment are well documented globally. Plastics takes years to decompose if ever, they leak chemicals into the soil, and burning them causes air pollution. Even then, they do not burn down to zero. Left uncollected and/or untreated, plastic waste eventually finds its way into oceans, landfills and drainages and causes blockage of storm drains. On the flipside, a well-organized recycling operation turns plastic waste into raw materials for products such as pillow fillings and fabrics like polyester for t-shirts, sweaters, and jackets.
One major hinderance in successful recycling is that beverage manufacturers are keener on marketing their products and not so much on recyclability of their packaging. So, many of them lean towards use of unique and often brightly coloured bottles to attract customers. The problem is that as opposed to blue and clear, coloured bottles are not the best candidates for recycling because they cannot be bleached out.
This is what informed Sprite’s recent shift from a green bottle to a clear one in line with Coca-Cola’s World Without Waste vision, which targets to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells by 2030. The company also plans to use 50% of recycled materials in all its packaging and is working towards making all their packaging 100% recyclable by 2025.
For as long as we have known Sprite, it has always come in a green bottle. Being a fast-selling soda and with the green bottle being a bit of burden to recyclers, we can see how easy it is to pile up unrecycled PET. The previous bottle is not as completely hopeless as some I saw at the recycling plant, but it is of less value compared to blue and clear bottles.
According to the Operations Manager at PET Bottle Recyclers Ms. Rose Were, the coloured bottles also come with some additional workload because they have to be sorted separately. Rose was however elated to acknowledge that the clear sprite bottle is a change in the right direction and that in just a few weeks, it has had a massive positive impact on their work and their bottom line. Already, accumulation of green bottles at the site has gone down drastically because the new bottle now moves along with the others into the next stages. There are still some alright but the heap is getting smaller by the day as fresh deliveries come in with the clear bottle.
To manufacturers out there, Rose says that if there is no other reason to produce coloured bottles, then she would urge them to mind the environment and go clear. As much as their products are moving, it is not a pretty site to see their branded bottles lying around while others have gone on to get recycled and put into better use. She does understand that there are some beverages that require brown bottles though.
The PET Bottle Recyclers company was founded in 2012 and been growing steadily since with partners like PETCO. PETCO is a company that represents the Kenyan PET plastic industry’s joint effort to self-regulate recycling.