In the last few years, countries looking to boost their recycling numbers have looked to the field's European innovators, like Germany and Austria, for inspiration and effective models. But they should consider taking a few notes from South Africa, too.

More than 2 billion PET bottles—plastic bottles used to package products made by Coca-Cola and other brands—were collected and recycled in South Africa in 2016, Africa Business Magazine reported. The country has seen an 822 percent increase in recycling tonnage since 2005.

The report came from South African PET recycling entity PETCO, a nonprofit that drives the country’s PET plastic industry’s efforts to self-regulate and improve PET collection and local recycling. PETCO announced on March 24 its 2016 recycling figures for South Africa, which indicate a significant increase in recycling rates for post-consumer PET over the last decade. The percentage jumped from 52 percent in 2015 to 55 percent in 2016.

Those rates are impressive when compared to Europe and the United States. The PET recycling rate in Europe in 2015 was 59 percent, according to a PCI Wood Mackenzie report on post-consumer PET collection. The recycling rate for PET in the U.S. that same year was 30 percent, according to a report from the National Association for PET Container Resources.

The recycling system in South Africa is evidently keeping up with increasing PET plastic use in the country; PETCO also reported a 22 percent increase from 2015 in the amount of post-consumer PET bottles that were recycled over the course of the year.

PETCO, which has been in existence since 2004, is making PET recycling a viable and sustainable option for recycling companies by subsidizing them for buying collected post-consumer PET bottles and recycling them into new products.

PETCO receives funding in the form of voluntary fees paid by companies that buy food grade resin, but brand owners and retailers who don’t actually buy resin also send PETCO an annual financial grant. Casper Durandt, chairman of PETCO and franchise technical manager for Coca-Cola South Africa, says the ongoing threat of a tax on PET plastics from the country’s minister of environmental affairs has motivated the industry to collaborate over the years. 

“We sat down and said, ‘Look we all make money off PET, so let’s not make one party responsible to fix the problem,’” Durandt says. “We designed a system where every entity that handles the product is seen as a packaging waste producer.”

The fee amounts to around $30 per ton of resin, and as the PET market grows, so does PETCO’s funding for recycling subsidies. PETCO estimates that since it began in 2005, the nearly 140 million USD that its subsidies have allowed contracting recyclers to pay collectors have saved roughly 800,000 tons of carbon and 3 million cubic meters of landfill space.

“We worked on achievable stretch targets from the start,” Durandt says. “We initially set a target of a 4-percent increase per year, and now we are increasing the target by 2 percent per year. This year, we need to add another 13,000 tons to the collection and end-use infrastructure to achieve our target of 57 percent.”

South Africa also was the first African country to use recycled PET for Coca-Cola products after Africa’s first bottle-to-bottle PET recycling plant opened in Johannesburg in 2015.

However, Durandt says that despite recent successes for the young nonprofit, continual improvement of the recycling industry in South Africa will only get more difficult as more PET enters the market. Separating PET for recycling after the consumer throws it away is the biggest challenge for the South African recycling industry right now. The prospect of a more formal collection process is getting serious attention because informal collection from landfill sites has its own set of safety and health hazards.

Apart from subsidizing recycling companies, PETCO also funds education about the purpose of recycling and the value it can realize.

“We do a lot of training in PET recycling basics and entrepreneurship, raising awareness around the value of PET and equipping collectors with business skills,” Durandt says. “We educate everywhere from schools to the general public. We don’t own any assets. We’re just oiling the machine with our well-directed funding mechanism.”