The WWF is run at a local level by the following offices...
- WWF Global
- Central African Republic
- Central America
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- European Policy Office
Every day we use unnecessary plastic items from straws to cutlery, takeaway food containers to coffee cups. We all need to rethink our throwaway lifestyles within the context of finite resources and accumulating waste. At the heart of this conversation is our increasing reliance on single-use plastics.
1. Why are single-use plastics such a problem?
Half of global plastic waste is from packaging, often used just once and thrown away a few minutes afterwards. In South Africa, the majority of litter on beaches is plastics (94%) with 77% of that being single-use. The reason single-use plastics are particularly problematic is that many can’t be recycled. They are highly prone to littering and easily blown around by the wind. In fact, only 9% of the plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. The inability to recycle many single-use plastics means these items will likely end up in a landfill or in our environment due to inadequate waste management and improper disposal. Because of the rapid rise in the consumption of single-use plastics some countries are banning them because they simply can’t handle the volume of waste.
2. Which single-use plastics are the worst offenders?
Among the most common problem plastics found along South Africa’s coast are shopping bags, straws, sweet wrappers, bottles and lids, earbuds, sucker sticks, cups and fragments of cups, takeaway food and drink packaging containers and food trays made from polystyrene. Stirrers, food wrappers and cigarette butts are also among the most common single-use plastics found in the environment. Each of these has been known to have terrible impacts on birds and marine mammals, with many birds and animals mistakenly eating pieces of degraded plastic thinking that it is food or becoming entangled in larger pieces of discarded plastic.3. How can I shop better to avoid single-use plastics?
We should reduce the plastic we buy in the first place. Top of the list are the items that are turning up on our beaches. When buying takeaways, set the example by taking along your own reusable cutlery, straw, coffee mug, water bottle and container. When it comes to grocery shopping, never leave home without your reusable bags and refuse the plastic bag the cashier offers you. Choose places where items are not pre-packaged in plastic, such as vegetable sellers, local markets and ‘nude’ grocery stores. Use light cloth bags for weighing loose fruit and vegetables instead of flimsy barrier bags. It is time to think outside of the bag and create new norms!
4. How can I reduce my use of single-use items at home?
Storing or packaging food is a way of extending the lifespan of fresh produce and food items, and thereby preventing food waste. Beeswax wraps are an alternative to cling wrap, for instance. Durable plastic containers with lids can be used over and over again at home. Even some of the packaging from the supermarket can be saved for reuse and food storage at home.
5. What about toiletries and detergents?
There are specific retailers that stock package-free soap bars, often made with natural ingredients and these are also not tested on animals – three in one! Plus there are many recipes online that use cost-effective base ingredients to make your own home cleaners, toothpaste and cleansers. In this way you can store liquids in reusable glass jars, instead of going through plastic wrappers and bottles each month. Many cleansers, scrubs and toothpastes also contain microbeads or glitter which are all microplastics – avoid these! Sugar and coffee face scrubs are natural alternatives that can be homemade.
6. What about online shopping?
Shopping online doesn’t mean you’re exempt from making decisions about plastics. Have you ever noticed the amount of unnecessary plastic bubble wrap and packaging that arrives with your online shopping deliveries? This is where you, the responsible consumer, come in. Don’t ever underestimate the power you have to put pressure on retailers and online shops to reduce their packaging. The more people who write in and express their concerns, the more seriously retailers will consider alternatives.
7. How can I make change happen faster?
When at a restaurant or retailer, raise the issue of single-use plastics with the waiter or manager and ask them to stock alternatives that are better for the environment such as glass or stainless steel straws, and cardboard or bio-degradable containers. Bear in mind that many products that are labelled bio-degradable will not bio-degrade if they end up in a landfill or in the ocean. Everything comes from something and goes somewhere, so even when making alternative, sustainable choices, think about how much energy and water has gone into making them and where they may end up. As a concerned consumer, you have a right and the responsibility to enquire about the environmental footprint of your choices. Reusable is almost always better than single-use.
8. What role can businesses play?
Half of all consumer plastics are designed to be used only once. While a number of local companies are starting to take a stand against some of the most problematic single-use plastics such as straws, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to see a far more holistic approach to tackling this challenge. Brand-owners, retailers and designers have a critical role to play in rethinking business models to include reusable packaging, designing packaging that can be recycled and educating their consumers to do so. Campaigns such as Rethink the Bag and Straws Suck have also prompted businesses nationwide to rethink their decisions around single-use plastics. Manufacturers should be held responsible for what ultimately happens to their plastic products. Extended producer responsibility will increasingly become a feature in South Africa.
9. What should our government be doing about the problem?
Strong leadership and intervention is needed from governments. They need to engage a broad range of stakeholders as they seek to tackle the plastic crisis by including national and local government entities, national waste management authorities, local waste management officers and trade and industry associations. Governments can also make use of a number of policy tools ranging from bans to levies and voluntary reduction strategies to public education. A 10-step roadmap for governments has been proposed by UNEP based on the experiences of more than 60 countries around the world taking action against plastic bags - and South Africa can learn from it. Municipalities are key because they have the power to make it easier for us to sort our waste for recycling in the home. Sorting at source is one of the most effective ways of reducing plastic in the natural environment.
10. So which countries have successfully banned single-use plastics?
More than 60 countries have introduced bans and levies to curb single-use plastics. Plastic bags and, to a certain extent, products like styrofoam have been the main focus of government action so far. Africa stands out as the continent with the largest number of countries to have instituted bans on the production and use of plastic bags. Of the 25 African countries that have introduced national bans on plastic bags, more than half shifted into implementation between 2014 and 2017. Rwanda, a pioneer in banning single-use plastic bags, is now one of the cleanest nations on Earth. Kenya has followed suit. Costa Rica in Central America aims to become the first country in the world to eliminate single-use plastics by 2021. But the truth is that bans are only effective if enforced.
- Refuse the straw, the single-wrapped sweet and the coffee cup lid
- Keep a travel mug handy for your coffee takeaways
- Check for eco-friendly, plastic-free alternatives when shopping
- Plastic Free Challenge
- Our Favourite Alternatives to Disposable Plastic Items
- 11 Plastic Free Eco-friendly Swaps
- Turn the tide on Plastic
- Single-use Plastics: A Roadmap to Sustainability