South Africa by no means knows it all and has much to learn from its African counterparts. It is essential for each country to understand its own local context well, as there is no one size fits all solution and no silver bullet — Michelle.

Michelle at Marketing Sustainability 2020.

NAIROBI, Kenya: “Plastic is a miracle material. Thanks to plastics, countless lives have been saved in the health sector, the growth of clean energy from wind turbines and solar panels has been greatly facilitated, and safe food storage has been revolutionized.

“But what makes plastic so convenient in our day-to-day lives – it’s cheap – also makes it ubiquitous, resulting in one of our planet’s greatest environmental challenges,” Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment stated during his opening remarks for the UNEP Annual Report 2021, while adding that, “Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.”

And, to help us unpack some of the existing challenges and success stories of the Africa’s plastic packaging industry and further provide a roadmap for sustainability going forward, Elvis Mboya, Founder and Managing Editor of Smart Africa Media interviewed Michelle Penlington, Chairperson of South Africa Plastics Pact Steering Committee [] and National Executive: Marketing and Sustainability at Polyoak Packaging Group [] on the sidelines of Propak East Africa 2022, the largest dedicated industry exhibition in packaging, plastics, printing and processing in East Africa, held from 10-12 May 2022 at the Sarit Exhibition Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.


Tell us a little bit about Polyoak Packaging’s journey in the packaging and plastics industry. 

Polyoak Packaging is a proudly South African family company founded in 1976, specialising in the design and manufacture of rigid plastic packaging for food, beverage and industrial applications.

Polyoak has over 40 manufacturing plants in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, with extensive distribution networks across southern and eastern Africa.

Its manufacturing facilities employ advanced energy-efficient injection, blow and compression moulding technologies geared towards high volume, low cost production. Quality assurance is guaranteed with internationally recognised health and safety accreditations including FSSC 22000, and specialist support from its dedicated on-site microbiological laboratory.

Raw materials for food packaging are compliant with EU legislation, and procurement is governed by strict quality specifications for consistency and full traceability. Its responsible labour practices guarantee ethically produced packaging.

Polyoak’s model comprises small teams of experts working closely together in partnership with customers to deliver impactful, high quality and environmentally responsible packaging solutions.

Polyoak strives to be the sustainable packaging partner of choice with its diverse range of fully recyclable generic and custom-designed bottles, closures, tubs, drums and buckets.

Polyoak also manufactures recyclable plastic garment hangers made from recycled plastic for the fashion retail industry.

What sets Polyoak apart is our passion for the environment and long-standing commitment to taking a leading role as a responsible producer.”

In 2011, more than a decade before extended producer responsibility (EPR) became legally mandated in South Africa, Polyoak helped set up Polyco (South Africa’s producer responsibility organization for plastic packaging).

Sustainability has been hard-wired into Polyoak’s operations for a long time already with energy-efficient manufacturing technology, solar power, electric mobility, water re-use and onsite recycling systems.

Polyoak has trained over three thousand employees on separation of waste and some sites have already achieved zero waste to landfill through, for example, the washing of oily rags for re-use, composting food waste from staff green rooms and recycling of solid waste.


Michelle signs Plastics Pact.

As the Chairperson of the South Africa Plastics Pact Steering Committee, tell us more about the organization’s mandate and achievements so far. 

The South African Plastics Pact was launched in January 2020 as the first on the African continent to join the global Plastics Pact network, with support from the government’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, WWF, and the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO).

The aim is to achieve a circular economy for plastics by addressing problematic and unnecessary plastic items, innovating to ensure that essential plastics are reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and circulating plastic items at their highest value for the longest time to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

There are four targets to 2025: Take action on problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging, 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled, and 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.

Pact targets vary between countries depending on the local context, infrastructure and challenges. The Kenya Plastics Pact is the second in Africa and launched in October 2021 with slightly different targets which have been adapted for the specific country conditions.

The secretariat of the SA Plastics Pact is Green Cape, who helped develop its Roadmap outlining activities and outcomes to build upon the work and programmes already being undertaken in South Africa by PRO’s such as Polyco, so as not to duplicate efforts.

Working groups were set up under each target to progress specific projects.

For example, under target one the working group has finalized the first list of problematic plastic packaging to be addressed by end 2022. The next step is to develop and adopt solutions to address the issues making these items problematic, through reuse, redesign and/or smarter recycling. The phase 1 list includes items such as oxo-degradables, PVC bottles (non-medical), PET shrink sleeves on PET beverage bottles, stickers applied directly to fruit and vegetables, plastic straws, stirrers and lollipop sticks, cotton buds with plastic stems and microbeads in cosmetics.

Under target two, for example, the working group is developing a visual guide for OPRL (On Pack Recycling Labels) to help packaging designers to correctly label items. The SA Plastics Pact also ran a Reuse Innovation Challenge last year to identify scalable opportunities to reduce the amount of single-use packaging in South Africa, ideally addressing non-recyclable plastics, or plastics that are often littered. Winning solutions included automated stations that encourage shoppers to bring their own packaging to get a discount to refill water and detergents.


What’s the level of sustainable packaging innovation in South Africa compared to the rest of the continent? 

The degree to which packaging is sustainable depends on the extent to which it addresses today’s systemic challenges of climate change and packaging pollution.

Sustainable packaging is partly a function of how well packaging manufacturers can decarbonize their operations and supply chains. This requires significant investment in the latest energy-efficient moulding machinery and renewable energy technologies, such as solar power systems, and electrification for mobility and heating.  Sadly, not all of Africa has access to these resources.

The level of sustainability also depends on the state of each country’s waste collection system and recycling infrastructure. If packaging is produced sustainably but is then littered into the environment, then it is no longer sustainable.  Therefore, recycling rates are often another useful indicator of packaging sustainability.

The plastic recycling rate in South Africa is around 40% compared with 8% in Kenya, for example, due to a longer history of investing in recycling capacity. South Africa’s plastic packaging PRO’s (producer responsibility organizations) such as Polyco and Petco have been actively investing in growing recycling and expanding end use markets for recycled plastic for more than a decade before EPR (extended producer responsibility) was legally mandated in South Africa last year. This puts South Africa in a strong position with a well-developed recycling industry.

Specifically, the recycling rate for high density polyethylene (HDPE) beverage bottles in South Africa is 75%, well ahead of PET beverage bottles at around 55% or UHT cartons at 15%. This is because HDPE has well-developed end-use markets, where demand is high for recycled HDPE for inclusion in home and personal care bottles. 

Ultimately, the sustainability of packaging is dictated at the very start of the innovation process, when the packaging brief is created. Converters like Polyoak, have taken an active role in advising customers on best practice when developing packaging briefs.

The development and implementation of Design for Recycling Guidelines is becoming more and more of a useful tool for brand owners and retailers to ensure that their packaging design is optimized for sustainability from the start. Essentially packaging needs to fulfill its core primary function, that of protecting the product in order to avoid food waste. Then it’s about making sure the packaging can contribute towards a plastics circular economy by being recycled and re-used.

Lastly, sustainable packaging innovation can only happen if organisations start to take more of a systems-based approach to their packaging development process.  Packaging briefs cannot be the sole domain of marketeers but rather should be co-designed by cross-functional teams to ensure that all elements relating to sustainability, re-use and recyclability are carefully considered.

What are some of the practical examples that other African countries can learn from South Africa in quest to address the waste crisis and climate change challenges? 

South Africa by no means knows it all and has much to learn from its African counterparts. It is essential for each country to understand its own local context well, as there is no one size fits all solution and no silver bullet. Getting brand managers, marketing teams, packaging technologists and procurement specialists to physically visit buy-back centres, recycling facilities and factories using the recycled plastic, is essential to build common understanding and seed collaboration.

This will lead to more sustainable packaging innovation, when briefs start with the end in mind – by making deliberate decisions about where the brand wants its packaging to end up once empty and which materials will have sufficient value to collectors to ensure it will be picked up for recycling, for example.

The Plastics Pact network is also a powerful platform, enabling countries to learn from each other’s pilot trials and case studies and helping to save resources (no duplicating research) and accelerate scaling up of workable solutions.

Historically the race was on for the lightest pack. This enabled brands to make claims about how much plastic they have removed from circulation. Today there is a growing understanding that the focus should be more on “right weighting” as some packs have become so light that they require more secondary packaging and are no longer fit for re-use. 

On a practical level, packaging should aim to be mono material (made from one type of plastic) instead of multiple layers of different substrates bonded together (such as UHT cartons) which makes it difficult to recycle. Single component packaging is also more effective in reducing litter and waste streams, than packaging composed of multiple separate components. For example, Polyoak’s one-piece, tamper-evident sauce closure does not require additional components such as foil seals and shrink wrap over cap. It’s an all-in-one solution that’s made from mono material (100% polypropylene).

Lastly, a large part of South Africa’s recycling success can be attributed to the well-developed end-use markets for the recycled materials. Recyclers will only buy materials from collectors if they have a customer to sell it to. Therefore, the industry must work together to find ways of using the recycled material, for example by procuring more items made from recycled plastic instead of virgin plastic. This increased demand for recycled plastic will enable the recycler to pay decent money to collectors, who will be more incentivized to reclaim the used packaging, instead of leaving it in the environment. It all starts at the end!


There is an ongoing debate within African countries whether plastic packaging is appropriate going forward for very justifiable environmental reasons. What’s your take? 

It is important to take a fact-based approach using science wherever possible, especially when considering plastic pollution which often elicits a purely emotional response.

Life Cycle Assessments for fresh food products such as milk, prove that packaging is a relatively minor contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. On average, 80% of emissions occur at the farming stage through agricultural use of land, deforestation, methane emissions from livestock, fertilizers and animal feed. Transportation comprises 10% and the remaining 10% is caused by processing, retail and packaging combined.  There needs to be heightened focus on these upstream issues if we are to address climate change in a more meaningful way.

Science also shows that replacing plastic with other materials will require four times more resources and cause higher emissions and water consumption. Glass, for example, is heavy to transport and needs to be heated to extremely high temperatures, making it extremely energy intensive. Life Cycle Assessments show that the water footprint of aluminium cans is 189% higher and glass is 676% higher than for PET bottles.  Water is a crucial consideration, especially in Africa.

Unsurprisingly, plastic packaging is projected to grow in Africa to keep up with its growing population. Although the global population growth rate is in decline, significant growth is still projected for Africa where one in every four people are projected to live by 2050. By 2100 a staggering 40% of Earth’s population will reside in Africa. Nigeria alone is forecast to outnumber the population of the entire USA by 2060.

Accelerating levels of rural-urban migration will challenge the traditional role of packaging in the delivery of goods to city-dwellers. Merely replacing plastic packaging with non-plastic alternatives will simply move the pollution problem elsewhere.  The real challenge is how to feed such a growing population. Plastic is lightweight, durable, affordable, recyclable and is often the lowest carbon emission material. However, the way it is being used is unsustainable. It is clear that our current linear system of take-make-dispose is the key driver of our litter crisis. We need to think bigger than simply replacing plastic with alternatives. We need systems change to solve this system problem. We need to move to a circular economy, not just for plastic, but for all our materials.

According to Pew & Systemiq’s global report, Breaking the Plastic Wave (2020), doing nothing will increase the proportion of mismanaged plastic waste from 40% to 56% globally by 2040.

This figure is likely to be higher in Africa due to the high prevalence of noncompliant landfills, open burning of litter and the failure of waste management to keep up with the rapid pace of urbanization. The research models a System Change Scenario which reduces mismanaged plastic to 10% by 2040 through a combination of waste elimination, material substitution (particularly for complex multi-layer and flexible plastics), recycling and appropriate disposal.

Ultimately, plastic is too valuable to waste. It is a renewable resource with huge potential to be beneficiated by recycling into other useful items, thereby creating jobs, building the economy and resulting in a cleaner environment.

Lead photo: Ms Penlington and Polyoak Team at Propak East Africa 2022 held from 10-12 May 2022 at the Sarit Exhibition Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.


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