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What do Halloween, Thanksgiving and Black Friday have to do with plastic? Well, all these Western world events are often adopted with dizzying gusto and excessive decor extravagance – mostly in consumerist societies and cities – where there is low regard for the plastic impact in their wake. And these are just the imminent activities to entertain kids and sell plastic merchandise before the big end-of-year festivities of family parties, packaged food and present giving.
Too many celebratory events have become symbolic of the linear ‘take-make-use-waste’ model of production and consumption – especially involving various items made of, or packaged with, plastic. From the (polyester) fancy-dress costumes and (unrecyclable) individually-wrapped sweets for Halloween to the (overly packaged) food feasts for Thanksgiving and the shopping frenzy to acquire more stuff (wrapped in more packaging) at the Black Friday sales.
We have taken our eyes off this complex problem of which we are a central part.
Plastic might have been one of humankind’s big inventions when it was first created in the 1950s, and now it has spiraled out of control beyond our wildest imaginings – one of our biggest problems!
So, let’s correct some commonly held misperceptions about plastics. The first three reveal the complexity of the problem, the next six reveal the circular opportunities.
FACTS: Plastic is a complex man-made material that provides value in society and industries. Yet its strength and resistance to degradation make plastics persist in our environment for centuries. It threatens human health and the health of nature’s ecosystems. The current economic cost of virgin plastic does not account for the negative impacts of plastic pollution on nature and people. And virgin plastic is often cheaper than recycled material. If quantified, these consequences reveal the true costs of plastic.
FACTS: The majority of plastics are produced from fossil fuels which makes the plastics industry a carbon intensive sector. Because plastic is a lightweight material, the transportation of products of equal volume generates fewer carbon emissions than the same products packaged in heavier materials such as glass or certain metals. But there are significant climate change impacts at every stage of the plastics value chain, from production to disposal. Plastic consumption in South Africa already increased from 29kg per person in 2017 to 36kg in 2018. Projected expansion in plastic production in the next decade will significantly increase the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. We need to curb the expansion of plastic production and reduce our consumption of virgin plastic.
FACTS: Plastic packaging is the largest sector with 52% of plastic raw material in South Africa used for packaging applications. It also plays a major role in reducing food waste as it creates a protective barrier for preserving and ensuring the safety of food. But, almost half the plastic goods consumed are designed for a short lifespan, and landfill or open dumping are the primary waste treatment methods. Plastic packaging, while convenient and seemingly inconsequential in small amounts, is a major cause of plastic pollution in nature. Unnecessary and problematic packaging should be eliminated, new product delivery models explored and essential packaging redesigned for circularity. Default packaging options at retailers should all be sustainable.
FACTS: Plastic waste that is collected through formal municipal waste services will most likely go directly to landfill, which is a primary waste management solution in South Africa. Alas, the majority of landfill sites in South Africa are non-compliant with regulations. Plastic leakage in nature, from litter and illegal dumping, is a sign of a weak and fragmented waste management system. This is a result of inadequate collection and sorting infrastructure, combined with a lack of capacity in municipalities.
FACTS: For a thriving recycling economy, we need waste separation in households, collection infrastructure, decent jobs and compensation for waste reclaimers and established markets for secondary resources (such as recyclate, both for local use and export). In South Africa, up to 215 000 informal waste reclaimers earn a meagre livelihood by collecting, sorting and selling recyclable materials. Informal waste reclaimers play an important role in bridging the gap in municipal services, through providing a ‘free’ recycling collection service. Informal waste reclaimers therefore should be adequately recognised and integrated into South Africa’s waste and recycling economy.
FACTS: Not all plastic products can be recycled. In 2018 in South Africa, 46% of plastic scrap was collected for recycling and only two thirds of this (68%) was actually converted to recyclate. Recycling is therefore only one of a suite of interventions. This is due to various reasons including availability of technology and infrastructure at the necessary economies of scale, end-use market demand for recycled material and contamination of recycling streams, which all boils down to its overall economic feasibility. Other solutions include the ‘reduce, reuse, rethink, redesign’ approach: elimination of unnecessary and problematic plastics items, innovative product design for reuse and new product delivery models such as refills and own-container dispensing schemes.
FACTS: Plastic pollution is often perceived as a marine problem, yet failures at each stage of the plastic life cycle all contribute to the plastic crisis. Instead of focusing on end-of-life management of plastic, a preventative approach that tackles the plastic pollution crisis at the source is critical. Tackling this problem requires a life-cycle approach – from design and production to reuse and disposal. We need to move beyond pollution management towards a circular plastics economy in South Africa.
FACTS: The old narrative is that the problem and the lever for change lies with the consumer. However, environmental impacts – including waste and pollution – are determined long before the product reaches the consumer. All actors in the plastics value chain have a role to play in dealing with the plastic pollution challenge. The circular plastics economy provides a model to guide collective action. Sustainable production and consumption require greater accountability, transparency and behaviour change in all stages of the plastic life cycle.
FACTS: While there are various policies and actions in place, little can be achieved without clear collaboration, accountability and transparency. Critical short-term decisions need to be made, including alignment towards a common vision, fast-tracking a mandatory extended producer responsibility scheme by time-bound national targets, and supporting a new global treaty to address plastic pollution.
In November 2019, 54 African states supported a call for global action to address plastic pollution at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN). In January 2020, WWF launched the South African Plastic Pact – signed by 35 industry members, and supported by the City of Cape Town, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, and others. In October 2020, 29 global businesses – including Pick n Pay and Woolworths in South Africa – signed a manifesto to call for a UN Treaty for Plastic Pollution. While leaders have made good strides towards plastic action, increased urgency is needed at all levels, including municipal, national, regional and global.
As we move into the festive season of celebrations, and consider our long-term pandemic impact, let’s look to the items that are reusable and the things we can repurpose. We can be grateful for the many positive roles of plastic in our lives and get strict on ourselves about deliberately phasing out our use of the hard-to-recycle plastics. We should also raise our voices and use our social platforms to put pressure on our government, local manufacturing and packaging industries, and retailers and suppliers to design better – and support the UN global treaty.
Start by sharing this blog with your network of family, friends, and colleagues.
There’s no time to waste, with 20/20 clarity and experience from the pandemic and climate crisis, we need to innovate and act now before our invisible plastic addiction consumes us entirely.
Read further into our work on the circular plastics economy.