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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, affordable, 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 demand for plastic, we need proper value chain accountability.

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 evaluate baselines.

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 across the plastics value chain in South Africa to ensure that plastic is produced and used in a sustainable manner to ensure both environmental and human health.

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 policy and regulations according to circular economy principles, specifically the mandatory extended producer responsibility for plastic waste;

  • Advocating for a new global treaty to address plastic pollution;

  • Shifting market practices to reduce virgin plastic consumption and move towards a circular plastic economy through product innovation for reuse and new product delivery models;

  • Conducting research to support global best practices for product and packaging design, certification and labelling  guidelines; 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 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 wellbeing and ensures no plastic leaks into nature.

This programme sits within the broader WWF 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 WRAP, 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 from February 2020 and WWF is providing support and has representation on the Steering Committee.

  2. With the aid of WWF, a group of six major retailers - Clicks, Food Lovers Market, Pick n Pay, Spar, Shoprite and Woolworths - collectively agreed to a standard and developed guidelines for On Pack Recycling Labels (OPRLs). The retailers have started with implementation of the OPRLs on various packaging formats to inform the consumer whether the packaging is or is not recycled in South Africa.

  3. WWF called for regional support from African countries to commit to a new global treaty to address plastic pollution at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in Durban last year. This resulted in a Ministerial declaration to support global action on plastic pollution in alignment with a new global treaty.