Recycling: what happens to our recyclable waste?

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This article was published in Weekly No. 354 of 20 June 2019.

After looking into what domestic waste can be recycled and where to drop your recyclables off, Weekly visits local companies engaged in recycling to see what happens to our recyclable waste after it has been collected.

When dealing with companies involved in the recycling industry, a distinction first has to be made between recyclers and exporters. Out of the 36 local companies registered with the Ministry of Environment, a mere eight are sole recyclers, i.e. they process what they collect in Mauritius itself, with the remaining 28 being either sole exporters or a mix between exporters and recyclers. Taking into consideration the four main recyclables – plastic, paper and cardboard, glass and aluminium drink cans – only the last two can be fully recycled in Mauritius – PET plastic, paper and cardboard are exported to be recycled abroad.

Plastics

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles (the transparent ones) are not presently recycled in Mauritius, while recycling solutions exist for other types of plastic. The nine companies dealing with PET registered at the Ministry of Environment are all exporters.

Véronique Ménagé, administrative assistant at Mission Verte, explains how the NGO deals with the PET bottles collected from its 50 recyclable drop-off points across the island. “PET is first separated from the other types of plastic (HDPE, LDPE, etc), which can be identified by the number inscribed on each plastic container within the three-arrow recycling symbol.” PET bottles are sent to Polypet Recyclers, a South African company with a branch in Mauritius. According to Ménagé, “The bottles are shredded into pellets and sent to South Africa where they are used as wadding in the manufacture of stuffed toys and quilts.” Caps of PET bottles are removed as they are made of a distinct type of plastic.

Conversely, the other types of plastic are sent to Surfrider Mauritius, based in Forbach, which turns them into garden furniture and plastic hedges which are then sold on the local market.

“Out of the 36 local companies registered with the Ministry of Environment, a mere eight are sole recyclers.”

Paper and cardboard

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Like PET plastic, paper and cardboard are not currently recycled locally and have to be exported.

We visited the Riche-Terre site of WeCycle Ltd, a small firm founded in 2012 which specialises in the export of paper. “Like most other local ‘recyclers’, we act as raw material suppliers to actual recyclers in Asia,” says Ludovic Henry, the director of the company employing 30 people.

WeCycle sources its paper and cardboard from printing companies, public and private institutions, supermarkets and NGO Mission Verte. Lorries drop truckloads of the recyclables daily (1). The first step is to then sort paper from cardboard (2). Paper is subsequently sorted again into white paper, printed paper and newspaper. “White paper is more valuable than, say, printed paper and cardboard,” Henry says. Indeed, white paper does not go through the de-inking process which printed paper – or any paper with ink on it for that matter – has to go through, saving time and money. “The combination of valuable paper and not so valuable paper and cardboard makes us break even,” the director confides.

For confidential documents, WeCycle offers shredding services to companies and other institutions (3). The sorted – and shredded – paper and cardboard are then compacted by a hydraulic press (4). “The aim is to maximise the capacity of our containers for export,” says Henry. The bales of paper and cardboard (5) are then exported to Asian countries like India, Indonesia, South Korea and Pakistan (6).

Glass

Just like non-PET plastic, glass is recycled locally. Cédric Descombes, the co-director of Plankton, a cooperative involved in the recycling of glass, shares the process with Weekly. “Bottles collected from hotels and individuals come to our Bel-Ombre site,” he says. “Those with a label are soaked in water overnight, before our staff scrape them clean.” The bottles are left to dry and are then passed through a crafty grinder. The ground glass falls onto a vibrating sieve comprising levels of different grades. “We obtain ground glass of five grades, ranging from pebbles 2cm big to glass dust, which is then packed in bags of 15kg.”

Ideas on how to use the recycled glass are plenty according to Descombes. “Its main usage is in swimming pool filters where glass lasts twice as long as conventional sand.” Recycled glass can also act as lining for flower beds, surfacing for garden alleys and even in the manufacture of kitchen counter tops. Descombes says that this costs “half the price of granite”.

Plankton, which currently employs 10 people, plans to expand its operation to recycle larger volumes of glass. “We currently produce about seven tonnes of recycled glass a month. With the new machine, we expect to grind a tonne of glass each hour,” declares Descombes.

Aluminium cans

The export of scrap metal has been prohibited since July 2016, officially “to prevent the theft of scrap metal”, according to Commerce Minister Ashit Gungah. Since the ban, all scrap metal – including aluminium drink cans – have to be sold to local foundries. With Mahen Gowressoo’s Samlo being in a position of a quasi-monopoly, the price of scrap aluminium has gone down, and so has the recycling of aluminium cans.
The aluminium cans collected by Mission Verte are stored at their Riche-Terre plant where local dealers come and pick them up to sell them on the market again.

How China has impacted the global recycling market

In early 2018, China, in a bid to protect its local environment and air quality, ceased importing plastic waste from across the world. “Since the import ban, all the neighbouring Asian markets have been saturated with plastic waste,” says Ludovic Henry from WeCycle Ltd. The result has been plummeting international prices not only for plastic, but for most other recyclables too, as Asian countries grapple with rising mountains of waste to process – an economics classic of offer exceeding demand.  “For instance, since the beginning of the year, the international price of cardboard has fallen by about 40 per cent,” says Henry. China’s ban and the ensuing chaos reminds us of how recycling is the last of the three R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle) and should only come in as a last resort.

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