Alpha Polyplast recycles used PET bottles to produce flakes and polyester strappings. One of the first recycling companies in Zambia, it protects the environment and creates livelihood opportunities for low-income communities.
To start, could you briefly introduce yourself?
I am Girish Sharma, Managing Director of Alpha Polyplast Ltd. Most people think that waste is something dirty and don’t want to touch it. I believe that you can make something out of it.
Could you tell us more about Alpha Polyplast?
Alpha Polyplast recycles PET bottles. We transform them into flakes and polyester strappings, which are used as packaging materials in many industries.
We are the only true recycling company in Zambia: the only one that really adds value to waste. There is only one other company here that collects bottles, and they only produce flakes for export.
How do you collect the bottles?
They are picked by collectors in Lusaka and the Copperbelt. We have established long-term relationships with women’s groups, mixed adult groups, and individual collectors there. The collectors receive one-ton bags and training from us. Then, they collect bottles and take them to our local aggregators or directly to our factory in Ndola.
How many people from low-income communities do you work with?
We work with 25 to 35 groups of collectors. The number fluctuates, since not all of them deliver bottles regularly. Each group comprises five to fifteen collectors. In total, we work with about 300 people, most of them from low-income communities.
In addition, we employ 95 people at our factories. About one third of them are women. Many people ask us for jobs, because the unemployment rate is very high in Zambia.
What is the impact you create for these people?
We provide them with a reliable income opportunity. Collectors receive K1,000 kwacha ($44) per ton, or K1,500 ($67) if they deliver directly to the factory. In total, collectors can earn any-where between K3000 ($135) and K7000 ($315) per month. This helps them support their families.
What is the environmental impact you create?
Plastic bottles take an average of 500 years to biodegrade. Recycling them helps tackle the waste problem in Zambia.
How do you measure your impact?
We collect impact numbers for all of the SDGs. For instance, we measure the income that collectors make and the number of women we employ. Prospero helped us set up the indicators.
What makes your business model financially viable?
We produce a high-value product. Alpha Polyplast is the only producer of PET strappings in East and Central Africa. They are exported to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi, and Congo. Zambia, too, has a small but growing market.
We have a gross processing capacity of 275 tons of bottles per month. This yields 200 tons of flakes, of which we produce 75 to 90 tons of strappings. We are currently producing at 50 percent of our processing capacity – mainly because we need to scale collection.
To collect more bottles, we have already entered partnerships with beverage companies.
How do you engage with beverage companies?
We partner with many beverage companies across Zambia. It is their packaging that produces the waste, so cooperation is part of their social responsibility. Coca Cola, for instance, gives us a subsidy for each ton of bottles we recycle. With Zambian Breweries, we have set up a joint body that finances and distributes trucks to improve collection.
What are your plans for the next few years?
In addition to strappings, we will produce rPET resin from used bottles. This is a petroleum-based resource used to blow bottles. We will be the first resin producer in Zambia, and among the first in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Coca Cola supports us on this. They want to use our rPET resin as recycling material for their new bottles. Other companies in Zambia and Zimbabwe have indicated interest, too. Making bottles from recycled resin is becoming more and more popular, so market demand is growing.
How are you realising these plans?
We want to expand our processing capacity to 600 tons per month, so we need to scale collection. Our supply manager actively contacts people in outlying areas, marketing our model and appointing aggregators. We are trying to raise as many women’s groups as possible, because they have proven to be the most reliable partners.
We also need more equipment to collect and transport bottles. The bottles are very light, so transporting them is a challenge. We have already constructed specialised trailers, which carry up to three tons of bottles. We need more of them in more locations.
What kind of support does Alpha Polypast need?
We need financial support to buy more equipment and scale collection – at least 500,000 to 750,000 dollars. Hence, we are always in the market for low-cost funding, ideally a mixture of debt and grants. We help many poor communities through the collection efforts, and with scaling collection and financial support will help many more.
What challenges has Alpha Polyplast already overcome?
When we started operations in 2017, it was challenging to penetrate the market, especially in South Africa. We had to do a lot of marketing to convince people that our machines and products were of high quality. Alpha still needs more help in further penetrating the strapping market.
Also, organising and training the collectors was difficult in the beginning. We showed them how to crush bottles to reduce their volume and how to hire vans together.
What recommendations can you give to other companies in your sector?
Recycling is a very difficult business in Africa. If you are not fully committed, don’t go into it. But if you have a passion, you can be very successful.
What kept you going despite these challenges?
If you are going from one side of the river to the other and are already half-way in, is it worth going back or should you go on? We decided that we were all so deep into it that it was not worth turning back. We can see the other shore, and we know how we can get there.