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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. 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 2025 targets. 

  2. WWF continues to mobilise support from African countries to commit to a negotiation mandate for a new legally binding global treaty to combat plastic pollution. This builds on the continent-wide support declared at the 2019 African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in Durban, and the Bamako Convention decision in 2020.

  3. WWF recognised the need for comprehensive research to consolidate case studies and the status quo of the plastic pollution challenge in the South African context. The Plastics Facts and Futures report, aims to achieve just that, and reveals the mounting evidence to highlight the risks of a business-as-usual path. It also provides ideas for first steps to achieve the necessary shift from pollution management towards a circular economy in South Africa.

  4. In 2020, WWF conducted research to understand the Covid-19 pandemic impact on various stakeholders at city level. The stakeholders are municipal waste service providers, recycling businesses and the informal recycling collectors. This study has helped identify areas where actors across the value chain could support downstream activities on measures to halt the pandemic-induced plastic leakage. As one area of response, WWF and the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) has initiated a project to organise informal reclaimers in the City of Cape Town in support of the country-wide informal waste sector integration process.

  5. We lead on a project to develop Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy recommendations for plastic packaging in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment and the IUCN. The project approach was an inclusive consultation process with all stakeholders in the plastic packaging value chain to formulate an effective and transparent EPR policy aligned with circular economy principles. The policy recommendations together with global best practice can be viewed here.

  6. Our programme together with partners – the SA Plastics Pact and the South African Plastic Recycling Organisation reached out to key industry stakeholders in the plastic packaging value chain to determine barriers and opportunities to drive up recycling rates and increase the use of post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging. These barriers in each life cycle stage as well as opportunities to leverage in future are illustrated in this report and fact sheet.