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3 cheers for (finally) eliminating unnecessary plastics

My life revolves around plastic. I notice it everywhere. I notice the nuances of plastic polymer types that are used in various items of plastic packaging. Yes, I am hyper aware of all things plastic! And yes, plastic infuriates me when I see it used unnecessarily in products, packaging and fresh produce.

Yes, plastic is also the focus of my work. I have been involved in all things plastic for two intense yet productive years with WWF. We tend to look at plastic from two angles: first, assessing the overwhelming plastic pollution challenge and second, working with stakeholders across the plastics value chain to search for and re-imagine innovative, systemic solutions.

© Jorge Franco / Unsplash
The deadline is set for the end of next year (2022) for all members of the SA Plastics Pact to stop producing, distributing and using an initial list of 12 problematic plastic items.
Cheer #1: Hooray! For telling useless plastics apart from the useful ones

As you can imagine, I get irate at the social conditioning of historic take-away and restaurant habits. Especially where some establishments have still not removed plastic straws and my 5-year-old sees, and then demands, a plastic straw for her milkshake. Or when my husband brings home a shiny new plastic carrier bag because he forgot to take the reusable bags in the car or into the store.

The thing is, I am bombarded everyday by the negative impacts of plastics. I am not just talking about plastic overflowing in out-of-site landfills, but the plastic items we all see in our shops and local food take-away spots. Also, littered in our parks and streets. And when we go on weekend family adventures, I am maddened to see fragmented plastic pieces in our life-giving rivers and on our beautiful beaches…

Yes, many plastics are useful in our modern world: from certain food packaging which keeps foods fresher for longer and thus prevents food waste, to the syringes needed for delivering Covid-19 vaccinations.

But a question I ask myself almost daily: Where is the plastics system going so wrong and when will it shift?

Plastics economy
© WWF South Africa
We need to redesign plastic to close the loop and prevent plastic getting into nature.
Cheer #2: Hooray! For shifting from single-use “linear” plastic to circular plastic

The plastic items we find in the natural environment are usually the ones we only use once and then throw away. Frustratingly, most of these single-use items are not collected by the formal and informal collectors because they cannot be reused nor recycled by recycling companies.

The current linear system of ‘‘take, make, dispose’’ has failures at every stage of the plastic life cycle. From the extraction of crude oil and the carbon impacts of producing man-made plastics from this oil to a range of poorly designed plastic products and it’s ‘‘end-of-life’’ being someone else’s problem. It is this mass-production and consumption mindset that has led to the increasing ‘‘leakage’’ of plastics into the environment.

Moving away from this wasteful linear system to the implementation of a circular plastics system – including redesign, reuse and recycling – is a balanced and pragmatic approach to addressing plastic pollution. This is what excites me about my work: that the change can happen upstream! This is where the impact for shifting the problem is at its most powerful.

To get to a circular system – or a circular plastics economy as we call it – there are various levers which we use at WWF. Firstly, there are plastic items and packaging that are not circular (cannot be reused or recycled and hence are not collected) which must be eliminated. Secondly, we then need to innovate to ensure that all plastic products are reusable and recycled in practice. Lastly, we need to keep the material at its highest value so that it remains in the economy and never becomes waste.

Therefore, it is time to act on the first lever: to eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastic items and packaging.
That is why the recent publication of a list of 12 problematic and unnecessary items to be phased out is such a welcome step in our journey toward a circular plastics system! This commitment was made by members of the voluntary, pre-competitive South African Plastics Pact – and it includes most of the big names in retail and production. What gives the SA Plastics Pact even more credibility is that it is part of an international network of Plastics Pacts and perceived as the only concrete thing happening in the business world to make plastics more circular.

12 plastics on way out
© Mathilde Langevin / Unsplash
When life hands you lemons, take your own reusable bag to collect them.
Cheer #3: Hooray! For embracing healthy solutions over bad habits

In understanding what makes a plastic item problematic and unnecessary it really helps to have a formal definition and a set of criteria, so that everyone is on the same page. Using this formal definition, the members of the SA Plastics Pact identified the 12 plastic items on a Phase 1 list, for phase out by December 2022. Some of these items will require a reusable alternative or alternative material, while others do not need to be replaced at all.  

The obvious items on the list of 12 are: 1) plastic straws, 2) plastic stirrers, 3) single-use cutlery, plates and bowls, 4) plastic lollipop sticks, 5) thin bags at check-out tills, 6) thin bags for fruit and vegetables, 7) plastic-coated stickers on fruit and vegetables and 8) cotton buds with plastic stems. Less obvious to the eye, but very dangerous for the environment are 9) microbeads – or very small plastic pieces – used in cosmetics. The other less known plastic items on the list of elimination are 10) oxo-degradable plastic (which includes certain grocery bags which contain additives), 11) PVC bottles, pallet wrap and labels, as well as 12) PET and PVC shrink sleeves on PET bottles.

plastic straw
© Spencer Davis / Unsplash
You can have your milkshake and drink it – just with a reusable straw!
A delay in an extra hip, hip hooray

The other plastic packaging format that is very problematic is expanded polystyrene packaging. Next to cigarette butts, this is the most prevalent material found on beaches and in rivers. However, polystyrene is not on the Phase 1 list. But it is good to know that it is on the Phase 2 list along with other plastic items and packaging to be eliminated following the first Phase 1 deadline.

Eliminating these initial 12 plastic items from a retailer, brand owner or hospitality company’s packaging portfolio is a big step forward because we have all been so accustomed to accepting these items without question.

On the other hand, the elimination of these items could have upstream impacts on some businesses or jobs. This has resulted in many discussions, but the general view is that this disruption has been in the making for some time now and businesses need to adapt and seize the new opportunities rather than put their heads in the sand about the snowballing plastic pollution problem.

Even before the publication of the Pact’s list, some members had addressed a few items. For example, Clicks phasing out PVC packaging via material substitution (bottles are used for some personal care items) and Spur Group phasing out balloons (not even on Phase 1 list).

So, what will this mean for you? Yes, more pressure – or that final incentive – to bring your own bags. Yes, to skipping the straw or using a reusable one… it’s about time we embed better habits!

Plastic cup
© Globelet Resuable / Unsplash
The sustainable alternatives are out there we just need more committed producers, brand owners and retailers – like those in the South African Plastics Pact – to eliminate problem plastics.
Three cheers for the good riddance of unnecessary plastics

It is worth celebrating that these voluntary Pact-member organisations are taking a stand to reduce plastic pollution. They are doing it without regulation-induced product bans nor for cost-cutting reasons. Rather, they are finally taking responsibility for what they place on the market – and changing the default offered to consumers. Albeit a whole year and a bit to make this change, this is a good first step for business – towards a plastic-pollution-free world – and without placing all the blame on the consumer.

While I can’t stop my 5-year-old from enjoying a straw in her milkshake, I can carry a metal straw in my bag, and I can fill the car with reusable bags until my husband gets into the habit of taking them with him.

On a higher level in the plastic value chain, what is most promising for me is to see the commitment of top South African companies taking collective action on a ‘‘controversial’’ topic which is a significant step forward to transform the plastics system for the better. Finally, my daily question is attracting answers!

Lorren de Kock Photo
Lorren de Kock, Project Manager: Circular Plastics Economy

Lorren is passionate about reducing the impacts of material production and consumption on our planet, through systemic transformation of economic systems and value chains. She is also a mom, loves long walks and reading history.

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