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South African Entrepreneur Transforms Plastic Waste into Playgrounds

South African Entrepreneur Transforms Plastic Waste Into Playgrounds
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Despite global efforts to curb plastic use, sub-Saharan Africa is predicted to see a six-fold increase in plastic use by 2060, said the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In South Africa, one man is trying to make a difference by creating jobs and transforming plastic waste into outdoor furniture and playgrounds.

It may look like timber, but the long, chocolate-brown planks used to construct a dining set are made of recycled plastic.

Hudson Diphofa started his business building with these planks at his home in the township of Katlehong, after he lost his job during the coronavirus pandemic.

He said it has created employment for himself and two other staff and contributes to environmental protection.

“It is safe to do the recycling so that we can save our environment because the animals, they won’t die from those plastics and everything, our dams they won’t be dirty, so I think that’s the way to save our community,” Diphofa said.

The 34-year-old now gets regular orders for outdoor furniture and playgrounds.

South Africa is one of the world’s top countries for recycling plastic, capturing about 45% of its plastic waste.

At the Tufflex Plastic Products recycling plant in Johannesburg, durable and sustainable faux timber is being made with plastics that are too low in quality to be reused for packaging or other materials.

Recyclers say it’s extending the lifespan of plastic used in everyday life.

Charles Muller is with Tufflex Plastic Products.

“When you wake up in the morning, you will touch or interact with plastic more than 100 times before you get into the office," Muller said. "And that’s turning on the light switch to your toothpaste. The problem we have with plastic is it’s visible and it pollutes — not plastic pollutes — people pollute.”

The economic incentive for recycling plastic has given rise to an informal waste picking industry.

People gather and separate materials to sell to recyclers, providing them with income.

But the informality of the business means waste pickers don’t have access to all neighborhoods or industrial areas, so the material ends up as litter or in landfills.

Luyanda Hlatshwayo reclaims waste.

“Because South Africa is such a disposing country, there’s plastic everywhere for us to collect," Hlatshwayo said. "There’s no proper structure that fight against the redirecting of plastic from going to the environment.”

Globally, 460 million metric tons of plastic are used annually, half of which is for packaging.

That’s set to triple by 2060, with a six-fold increase in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And recycling is not keeping up, capturing only 9 percent of plastic waste globally.

Which is why environmentalists say reducing plastic consumption — especially non-essential packaging — is necessary.

Lorren de Kock is with the World Wildlife Fund.

“In Africa, there’s lack of financial capacity, human capacity to collect this waste efficiently, and so recycling is a problem," de Kock said. "This needs to be looked at by businesses and government, because we need to change the default and the normalization of just offering consumers plastic continuously.”

Even with a reduction in plastic use, there would still be plenty of recycled material for creators like Diphofa to transform for new uses.