BOWLING GREEN, OHIO - The winds of change are slowly stirring in South Africa. Those winds are stirring democracy, economic opportunities for a previously disenfranchised majority - and litter.
So much so that plastic shopping bags that find themselves blown onto fences and tree branches have become the unofficial ``flower of Africa,'' according to a recycling company manager in Kyalami, near Johannesburg.
Nick Kock, managing director at Collect-A-Can Pty. Ltd., visited Bowling Green recently as part of his 18-day U.S. tour to gather market information and make contacts in the post-consumer plastics business.
Since 1993, the nonprofit CAC has been a leading collector and processor of post-consumer aluminum beverage and steel food cans in South Africa, Kock said. CAC paid the equivalent of $2.5 million for 57,000 tons of cans collected by independent contractors who made up southern Africa's unemployed masses.
The company has a staff of 156 within its main operations, including locations in South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Now that plastics have presented a new consumer waste problem in the country, Kock is exploring opportunities to supply post-consumer PET and possibly high and low density polyethylene to U.S. end users.
He is doing so after being approached by South African packaging giant Nampak Ltd. of Johannesburg to improve post-consumer plastic collection rates in that country. Nampak is one of CAC's shareholders.
``[Nampak] got rather worried about plastic,'' Kock said. ``Because of this, Nampak approached Collect-A-Can and said, `You already have the infrastructure in place; won't you consider recovering plastics?' ''
Kock thinks industry in South Africa may face more legislative mandates if companies there do not start recycling programs on their own.
Nationwide, Kock said, only 12 percent of plastic packaging is recycled, compared with a 63.5 percent rate for cans. The South African ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism is considering a ban on certain PE bags within a year, Kock said.
Kock admits that South Africa is about 10 years behind the United States in both awareness and practice of recycling. He said a market survey his firm conducted in his country revealed only 12 percent of the population feels any responsibility toward the environment.
``When we asked ... people to list top priorities in their lives, environmental issues have not figured at all: First is crime, second is water and third is job security,'' Kock said. ``Circumstances have dictated other priorities; that doesn't mean to say we must neglect [the environment].''
Some progress is being made. Disgusted by mountains of waste emerging around South Africa, Valli Moosa, environmental affairs and tourism minister, is promoting a 1 million rand ($125,000) competition for the cleanest city, to encourage litter prevention.
Later in the year, South Africa will play first-time host to a major international waste summit, and the country has a goal of recycling 40 percent of plastic products in three years.
CAC will be working independently of a venture supported by Coca-Cola Co.'s southern and east Africa division, one of South Africa's polyester recyclers and four plastics-related packaging companies that have joined to collect plastic packaging.
``We're in for some interesting times, and the environment can only score from it,'' he said.
CAC's three-year goal is to start a collection operation that will boost the country's plastic recycling rate to 25 percent. Kock hopes to boost CAC's sales to $7 million, from a current level of $4 million, over that same period.
While in Bowling Green, he met with officials at Phoenix Technologies LP, a recycler of post-consumer PET. That trip followed a visit to UltrePET LLC, a PET recycler in Albany, N.Y.
``The states have been involved in plastics recycling for a number of years, having developed good technologies,'' Kock said. ``If we go into these products, [success] will be determined by how [cost-effectively] we can deliver a product of suitable quality.''