• RE-USE: Chandru Wadhwani with some of the polyester fibre his family's company makes from recycled plastic bottles. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

  • RE-USE: Chandru Wadhwani with some of the polyester fibre his family's company makes from recycled plastic bottles. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

WHEN Chandru Wadhwani received a call from a local nylon-yarn manufacturer, little did he know it would save his family's ailing Nigerian textile business. Wadhwani, who was born in Sierra Leone, and his family have been in textile manufacturing in West Africa for half a century. But from the 1990s, the industry came under a veritable assault from the arrival of waves of cheap Chinese imports in the region.

The family business was hit hard. By 2000, when the call came in, the family had shed its weaving and garment lines and was down to just its spinning line; this too would soon be dispensed with.

Down in SA, concern was growing about local industry. The then minister of environmental affairs, Valli Moosa, was threatening to widen a levy on plastic bags to include plastic bottles. Such a move, some said, could price plastic bottles out of the market.

Sans Fibres, which supplied Wadhwani's business with raw material, also produced polyethylene terephtalate (PET), which is used to make plastic bottles. Sans Fibres knew a levy might not be necessary if there was an option to re-use the bottles to make new ones.

"Sans Fibres said 'any chance of you guys coming down and collecting our bottles as a raw material', to which we replied 'what the heck are you guys smoking, what do you mean collect dirty bottles?' But it was heaven sent - it saved our business," says Wadhwani.

The operation the family set up in SA turned used plastic bottles into PET chips, which could then be transformed into polyester fibre and shipped north to feed the family's Nigerian textile factory. It was a lifeline for the textile firm. And while Sans Fibres has since shut up shop, business for Wadhwani has been booming.

Today, one in every two plastic bottles recycled in SA - or 20000 tons a year - passes through Extrupet, the family's Wadeville factory. Some of the recycled plastic is used to make new bottles, with each Woolworths-branded bottle containing 30% used plastic. The PET chips are also trucked down to Propet, the family's newly acquired Milnerton, Cape Town, factory, where they are turned into polyester fibres. These are then sold to mostly local companies, which use them to make everything from roofing insulation to face wipes and imitation woollen trousers.

A R70m Industrial Development Corporation loan helped the family acquire the Milnerton factory last year and will also help it to ramp up production of polyester fibre by funding a new PET chip-making plant based at the factory.

Wadhwani reflects how the number of plastic bottles recycled has risen dramatically from 1000 tons 12 years ago, to 40000 tons a year today. Much of the increase is thanks to the efforts of industry body Petco, which has helped avoid the government having to place a levy on plastic bottles as it had done with plastic bags.

However, recyclers have not been able to keep up with the huge surge in the production of PET bottles - from 50000 tons in 2000 to more than 160000 tons a year today. The country is dumping more than double it produced more than a decade ago.

Wadhwani believes that PET recycling in SA is approaching a ceiling, as outside of big urban areas it remains very expensive to collect bottles.

"The solution is that we, as civil society, are going to have to pay for it in one way or another, either in the form of government levies or higher prices on packaging. But it's not sustainable to just keep consuming, throwing away and dumping."

European countries may have been successful in placing a levy on bottles, but Wadhwani says such a system is costly because it relies on a separate collection system for recycling. On top of this, any monies collected via a levy will simply be channelled back into the fiscus rather than set aside to fund recycling measures.

He admits, however, that his biggest frustration is that most people know nothing about the 2009 Waste Management Act, which specifies a hierarchy in dealing with waste, namely: reduce, re-use, then recycle. Most ratepayers, he believes, will take notice only when their municipality starts levying higher rates on waste.

"Guess what - just as electricity and water are scarce resources, so is waste management. How many holes can you dig in the ground and bury your waste?"

While landfills are quickly filling up, new ones can easily take three years to develop and the decision to commission a new one can be overturned with just a few hundred votes from the community. He singles out the example of Naples in 2010 when, after running out of landfill space because of poor management, residents began dumping waste in the streets and burning it: "T hey finally had to call the army out to clean up the trash."

The challenge, however, is not just one of collecting waste, but of finding a use for it: "When you create the end demand, local entrepreneurs will find a way."

He describes the job creation possibilities of recycling as "like a cascading effect" and already his Wadeville factory has created more than 5000 jobs for those who collect the plastic. There will be more jobs when the new Milnerton facility is completed.

"The big job creation is in the collection of bottles, because while you can automate the process of recycling and of fibre production, you can't automate collection.

Since 2005, the family has also set up a polyester fibre-making plant in Nigeria. Though about 95% of production is shipped to Europe, Wadhwani is bullish about the Nigerian market. Yet he has no problem dealing with SA 's regulatory environment. His biggest headache is the shortage of skills and the cost of labour, which has meant he has had to import technicians from India because it's too expensive to hire local technicians. And how do Nigerian workers compare to South Africans?

"They're more skilful in Nigeria, they're a lot more educated. Sadly I think that's one of the fallouts from apartheid. The transfer of skills and teaching the new generation is not where it needs to be."

So what about the Chinese threat; could the manufacture of polyester fibre from used plastic bottles represent the last line of defence for the textile sector?

Not really, says Wadhwani pointing out that China has more than 7 -million tons of installed capacity to make polyester fibre, way more than SA 's 40000 tons. The Chinese threat is very real. His biggest competitor is a Chinese firm in Newcastle. Even if his factory has the ability to manufacture speciality fibres, Wadhwani knows the gap is closing.

"Nigeria today is kind of a gloomy example of what can happen here," he says and estimates that today just two local mills survive, down from about 250 in the mid-1990s. It's why he's off again this month on another fact-finding trip to China. The question, he knows, is how much longer can he stay competitive?