The demand to ban plastic products is a simplistic response to the complex problem of excessive plastic waste. What’s required is a rational solution to the genuine crisis of plastic pollution, and not just an emotional reaction.
Many of those leading the call to ‘wage a war on plastic’ fail to understand the impact alternative materials have on the environment. It is tempting to imagine a world without plastic as some sort of environmental utopia. But, in the FMCG industry, plastic uses four times less energy than alternative materials such as metal, paper and glass. So, the use of alternatives to plastic packaging would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions.
If disposed of correctly, plastic is highly environmentally friendly. This is where the solution to plastic pollution can be found: in the correct disposal and management of plastic waste.
A big commitment from industry
Speaking during the opening of Propak Africa on 12 March, Anton Hanekom, executive director of Plastics|SA, asked whether replacing plastics is a blessing or curse.
‘We are prepared to be bold and say waging war on plastic is not the answer. Instead, the time has come to start waging war on plastic pollution. To win the war on plastic pollution, every role-player in the plastics industry needs to confront some hard truths. This includes us as the producers of plastics, but it also includes government and consumers.
‘We are willing to make bold and constructive changes to our products. As members of the South African Initiative – an alliance of key members of the full packaging value chain – we are committed to transforming all our products to make them more environmentally friendly and recyclable.’
Industry will also prioritise new scalable technologies that not only make recycling and recovering plastics easier, but also enable the creation of value from all used plastics. For us to be successful, Hanekom says the industry needs to work closely with government. After all, its government’s responsibility to provide adequate waste management infrastructure and to correctly incentivise citizens to recycle.
Inadequate infrastructure aggravates the issue
‘We are encouraged that government is prepared to have tough conversations regarding the challenges ahead. The Department of Environmental Affairs, for example, admitted in Parliament two weeks ago that it had failed to develop competent waste management facilities, let alone recycling infrastructure.’
Around the country – from eThekwini to Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg to Tshwane, including Cape Town – citizens resort to dumping their waste illegally because basic waste removal facilities are either inadequate or absent. A study commissioned by the Department of Environmental affairs in 2012 showed South Africa generated 108 million tonnes of general waste in 2011, of which only 10 percent was recycled.
‘The consequences of our weak waste management infrastructure are not only visible in our rivers and oceans, but also cost the country millions when municipalities have to clean up illegal dumping sites,’ says Hanekom.
‘We need government to urgently fix South Africa’s inadequate waste management facilities and improve infrastructure for collection and recycling. This can create thousands of new jobs while safeguarding the 100 000 formal and informal jobs the plastics industry currently provides.
Ring-fence the plastic bag levy
To start financing the upgrade of our flawed waste management system, our view is that government must immediately take steps to ring-fence the plastic bag levy that was implemented back in 2003. This levy has increased from three cents per bag in 2003 to 12 cents in 2018.
Hanekom comments: ‘The nearly R2 billion raised by the levy so far, should never have been absorbed into the black hole of our national fiscus. Instead, the levy should have been ring-fenced for its intended purpose: to develop better recycling facilities and incentivise sustainable consumer behaviour.
‘In the coming weeks and months, we, as the plastics industry, will embark on a sustained campaign to persuade government and citizens to join us in the war on plastic pollution. We support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s quest to clean up South Africa, but it can only happen if there is a recycling revolution in this country.
Recognise the many positives
If used correctly and disposed of properly, plastic has immense value to society. It has a smaller carbon footprint than its alternatives and is more cost effective to produce. This means a lower cost of living, more economic growth and more jobs.
A rational conversation about plastic pollution recognises the positive attributes of plastic and focuses on how to manage plastic waste. The time has come to have that rational conversation, and we look forward to leading the discussion.
‘To win this fight, we need to build strong collaborative and meaning full partnerships. Government, industry and consumers need to work together,’ Hanekom concludes.