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Project to implement and scale circular solutions to plastic pollution in South Africa

An ambitious, five-year project aims to transform plastic packaging in the food and beverage sector in South Africa in a bid to cut down on plastic pollution

The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and WWF South Africa are spearheading a five-year project to support the development of circular plastic packaging and systems to reduce plastic pollution from the food and beverage industry.

It is widely acknowledged that plastic pollution is not only an environmental challenge, but it also includes socio-economic and potential human health and human rights challenges. Yet, while much of the attention has focused on improved waste management, this project will focus exclusively on upstream and midstream interventions in the plastic packaging value chain – looking at how to turn off the tap on problem plastics at source.

The project, which is now in the planning phase and being funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Integrated Programme on Circular Solutions to Plastic Pollution, is one of 15 national projects and will see UNIDO and WWF join hands with Green Cape and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

This is the first time that GEF will be funding national projects that will promote circular economy practices in the food and beverage packaging value chain. This South African project comes against the backdrop of South Africa’s disproportionate contribution towards plastic pollution in sub-Saharan Africa.

Research shows that South Africa contributes around 35% of plastic pollution leaking into waterways and the marine environment in southern and east Africa according to the IUCN study on Regional Results on Plastic Pollution from Eastern and Southern Africa. In addition, per capita plastic waste generation in the country is 28 kg per year which is significantly higher than the average of 16 kg per annum on the continent.

To date, there have been several efforts to address plastic pollution at government and industry level, most notably through the South African Plastics Pact, a voluntary, multi-stakeholder platform that was established in 2020 to drive a shift towards a circular plastic packaging economy. The Extended Producer Responsibility regulations were also introduced in a bid to place more responsibility on those who put plastic packaging on the market.

Yet, while some brand owners and retailers have made internal commitments to design plastic packaging for recycling and limit plastic use, these have had limited impact across national plastic value chains.

A significant challenge is that virgin plastics are cheaper than recycled and alternative materials, while the demand for recycled and alternative materials remain low in the current linear economy. Poor design, low rates of collection and recycling of single-use plastics used in consumer goods and the high environmental impact of plastic pollution continue to be a problem.

The planning phase of the national project now underway, followed by the implementation phase starting in the second half of 2024, brings together experts on circular economy and plastic packaging and will see engagement with stakeholders across the value chain to inform the interventions for the implementation phase.

In seeking a circular solution, South Africa has the potential to position itself as a hub for plastic circularity in the region while tackling the issues of job creation and poverty alleviation in alignment with the objectives of a proposed UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution which is still being negotiated.

Nahomi Nishio, industrial development expert, UNIDO, commented: “The GEF's Integrated Program on Circular Solutions to Plastic Pollution is aiming to address the root causes of plastic pollution, one of which is ever-growing unsustainable consumption and production of single-use and problematic plastic products and packaging with low circularity. The intention is to demonstrate and scale up upstream and midstream solutions in the food and beverage sector, and it is expected to contribute to South Africa’s transition toward a thriving, equitable and inclusive circular plastics economy, which would create well-being for society and the environment.” 

Lorren de Kock, Circular Economy portfolio manager, WWF, said: “Plastic packaging contributes to 60% of total plastic leakage and pollution in South Africa according to the IUCN National Plastic Pollution Hotspotting study. WWF South Africa is looking forward to being part of this national project, aligned with the aims of the GEF Integrated Programme for Circular Solutions to Plastic Pollution and the developments within the UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution. This project aims to scale ongoing impactful initiatives and implement existing research recommendations to transform the plastic packaging landscape in South Africa from linear to circular in an inclusive and equitable manner”.

Suzan Oelofse, Principal Researcher in Sustainability, Economics and Waste, CSIR, said: "Scientific evidence is critical in identifying appropriate solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. Applying the ‘Pathways Tool’ to South Africa, we have demonstrated that no single strategy will effectively address the plastic pollution problem on its own. Instead, a system change, involving a reduction in demand for plastics, increased circularity through collection and recycling of plastics, and proper end-of-life management, could result in a 63% reduction in plastic pollution by 2040, as compared to business as usual.

“We have also developed recommendations to inform a Roadmap for a Circular Plastics Economy in South Africa, which highlights that a broad range of interventions is required by role-players across the entire plastics value chain. Particular emphasis is needed on upstream and midstream interventions. Improved waste management and recycling, while essential, will not be enough on their own. The CSIR is therefore excited to be part of this project, which focuses on upstream and midstream interventions for increased circularity in food and beverage packaging in South Africa.”

Saloshnee Naidoo, Circular Economy Programme Manager, GreenCape, said: “There is greater economic growth and job creation potential in a circular economy for plastic packaging in South Africa, than in our current more linear system, according to recent macroeconomic modelling by Pegasys and Circular Vision, in partnership with WWF.

"GreenCape aims to unlock investment and infrastructure that support a green and circular economy in South Africa, and as such is the Secretariat for the SA Plastics Pact, which convenes organisations across the value chain towards ambition targets that drive circularity in plastic packaging. The GEF-8 project is able to build on the Pact’s learnings and collaboration, so that the progress from this group of innovators and early adopters can inform industry action and invite the wider South African industry into the journey towards a circular economy for plastic packaging in our country.”

Food and beverage packaging often ends up in the environment.

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