Flexible plastic recycling project expands in Africa following pilot success

Materials science firm Dow has announced the expansion of its ‘Project REFLEX’ initiative in Egypt and Guinea, following a successful pilot phase in Nigeria and the commencement of and 18-month partnership with WasteAid.

Project REFLEXProject REFLEX aims to increase flexible packaging recycling in Africa to establish a market for recycled contents, in turn addressing the continent's waste issue whilst providing employment opportunities for local communities.

A ‘successful pilot project’

The initiative targets single-use plastic water sachets, collecting and recycling them into new packaging applications. Around 70 per cent of the Nigerian population relies on the sachets for their daily water needs in the absence of access to drinking water, Dow says.

These sachets are thrown away due to lack of awareness around the challenge of plastic waste, with the country's waste management infrastructure – described by Dow as ‘inconsistent at best, and poor at worst’ – disregarding the lightweight packaging, as waste pickers are paid by weight.

The pilot project in Nigeria, working with waste management company RecyclePoints, used kiosks, a phone app and employed waste pickers to collect the water sachets.

Dow told Resource that the kiosks act as a ‘bring-back focal point for the community to return waste in exchange for groceries, mobile phone credits, cash and other useful items’. Coordination between pick up points was achievable through the app.

The journey of waste within Project REFLEX

The pilot project saw collected waste taken to plastic bag supplier Omnik, to be processed into post-consumer recyclate (PCR), with the first few batches being collected and sent to Dow’s ‘Pack Studios’ in Tarragona, Spain, where they were analysed and tested. The company said that, alongside Omnik, it can enhance the properties of the recyclates so they can adequately be used again.

As part of this project, Omnik has funded a ‘stationary buy-back centre’ – operated by RecyclePoints – at the Lagos State Ministry of Environment, aiming to create long-term infrastructure for recovering plastic waste.

The PCR created in the pilot is currently being trialled by a ‘large brand owner’ for use in non-food packaging applications. If successful, Dow says this will be a ‘live example of a closed-loop system for plastics in Africa and further prove the commercial viability of PCR materials from flexible packaging waste’.

Scope for expansion

Dow’s objective for Project REFLEX is to ‘divert 10,000 Metric Tons (MT) of flexible packaging waste by 2025’ which would otherwise end up in landfill or the environment. So far, the project has diverted a total of 520 MTs of flexible packaging waste into mechanical recycling streams and new applications.

In partnership with waste management company Wecyclers, Dow also plans to create an employment scheme, offering opportunities to over 50,000 waste collectors in Nigeria, Egypt and Guinea.

Wecyclers provides recycling services in populated urban neighbourhoods, operating using a rewards-for-recycling platform. Dow states that this incentivizes people in ‘low-income communities’ to generate value from their waste.

Using cargo bikes called ‘wecycles’, local collectors pick up recyclable waste from households and deliver the materials to its collection, sorting and packaging hubs around Lagos. Service subscribers exchange points, measured per kilogram of recycled waste, for essential goods, such as food and household items.

The growth of Wecyclers has led to the incorporation of motorised tricycles, vans, and
trucks – expanding across Lagos and providing more materials to manufacturers, who turn the recyclable material into new items including tissue paper, stuffing for bedding materials, sturdy plastic furniture, aluminium sheets, and nylon bags.

Sami Mainich, Regional Director Dow North & West Africa, commented: “At Dow, we know that a critical part of solving the plastics waste crisis is enabling a closed-loop system for waste.

“Using our expertise in materials science and technological capabilities, we believe that we are best placed to help accelerate the pace of change in developing nations like Africa by supporting innovative local enterprises to scale solutions that benefit the environment and local communities.

“The Project REFLEX initiative is a prime example of how this can take shape and grow sustainably especially where flexible packaging applications are concerned.”