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The Circular Plastics Economy
© WWF South Africa

Despite the negative press it gets, plastic is an immensely useful material. It’s versatile, convenient, durable and it promotes food safety. Unfortunately, it’s also one of nature’s worst pollutants. To curb the major threats to environmental and human health stemming from the ever-growing production and demand for plastic, we need to transition from a linear to a circular economy for plastics. This requires value chain accountability, effective and coordinated national, regional and global policy, and proper management of plastic at end-of-life.

What is the issue?

The plastics sector is a contributor to the South African economy through applications across multiple industries including packaging, building and construction, and agriculture. However, South Africa also ranks in the top 20 countries in the world in terms of plastic waste that is not managed effectively and ends up in nature.

This leakage of plastics into nature is a symptom of the ‘take-make-waste’ linear economy – one that is driven by profit, fuelled by the intensive extraction of finite resources (in this case, fossil fuels) and characterised by environmental degradation. But the problem begins long before plastic becomes waste.

The plastic pollution challenge is multifaceted and can be defined by various failures across the plastic lifecycle, including poor design of short-lived and unnecessary plastic products; dependence on fossil fuels as a raw material; inadequate waste management infrastructure for collection and recycling, and limited end-use markets for recycled material. These failures are coupled with a lack of effective regulation and a lack of data to ensure transparent accountability of stakeholders.

WWF recognises the need to address the plastic lifecycle failures using a systemic, cross-sectoral and coordinated approach.

What are we doing?

WWF works with stakeholders in government, civil society, academia and across the plastics value chain in South Africa, the rest of Africa and globally to ensure that plastic is produced and used in a sustainable manner to secure both environmental and human well-being.

How do we do this?

WWF works to accelerate the transition from the inefficient and wasteful linear economy to a circular economy for plastics in South Africa, in which virgin plastic consumption is reduced, the value of plastic is retained in the economy for as long as possible, and no plastic leaks into nature, resulting in multiple environmental and socio-economic benefits.

We do this by:               

  • Supporting the development and implementation of effective national and regional policy and regulations according to circular economy principles, specifically, mandatory extended producer responsibility for plastic packaging;
  • Advocating for a negotiation mandate at the UN Environment Assembly for a new legally binding global treaty to combat plastic pollution;
  • Shifting market practices to reduce virgin plastic consumption and move towards a circular plastics economy through innovation in product design for reuse and new product delivery models;
  • Conducting research to support global best practices for product and packaging design, certification and labelling guidelines, standardisation of reporting definitions (recycling, reuse rates, and recyclability); and
  • Sharing our learnings with local and regional partners.
Who do we work with?

We work with stakeholders across three critical tiers, namely government, industry and cities (including key actors, such as the informal waste sector and consumers), to deliver catalytic impact at a meaningful scale, while strengthening existing actions of our partners through strong leadership, convening and sharing of expertise.

How did it start?

WWF’s Circular Plastics Economy Programme was established in 2018 to build a future where plastic is valued and managed in a way that serves human and environmental well-being and ensures no plastic leaks into nature.

This programme sits within the broader WWF’s “No Plastics in Nature Initiative” that uses a systems approach to reduce unnecessary plastic consumption, to promote closing the loop in plastic material flow and to encourage accountability across the value chain to stop plastic leakage into the environment.

What are the big wins?

1. More than 2.2 million people around the world signed WWF’s petition calling for UN Member States to start negotiations on a new global treaty to end plastic pollution. The call was also supported by more than 120 global companies and over 1000 civil society organisations. Consequently, the resolution, End Plastic Pollution: Towards a legally binding instrument was unanimously adopted in March 2022 at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2).

2. In 2021, WWF’s Regional Plastics Policy project successfully mobilised African governments and NGOs to support a negotiating mandate for a new legally binding global treaty. This was done through a regional workshop and various outreach activities leading up to UNEA 5.2. The workshop, co-hosted by the African Union Commission, brought together more than 70 participants drawn from government representatives of 22 African Union Member States and representatives of 15 organisations from civil society and the private sector.

3. WWF and the African Reclaimers Organisation have been working with reclaimers in Cape Town, supporting them to get organised. Since the beginning of the project in 2021, over 1000 reclaimers from seven communities, such as Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, Gugulethu, Retreat, Delft, Makhaza and Pinelands have been engaged through mass meetings, and have come together to establish ways to work collaboratively. The project has also created an opportunity for reclaimers to engage with the City of Cape Town and other key stakeholders in the waste management and recycling sector around their work.

4. WWF, together with the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Waste and Resources Action Programme, launched the South African Plastics Pact in January 2020. This brings together key stakeholders in the plastics value chain – businesses, governments and NGOs – behind a common vision to address plastic waste and pollution issues. GreenCape is the implementing organisation and WWF is a supporting member and a ‘critical friend’ regarding progress made by the members towards the targets set for 2025.