War on single-use plastic

Plastics SA believes the ban of single-use plastic bags by retailers, shopping malls and even countries is a rash response. MARISKA MORRIS investigates whether this is mass hysteria or the best solution to single-use plastic waste

The United Nations officially started the countdown to an environmental catastrophe last year when it announced that the global population has only 12 years to prevent the irreversible damage caused by global warming. It is no wonder then that more people are taking environmentally friendly living very seriously.

Along with reducing their carbon footprint, many people have expanded this concept to all aspects of their lives, which has resulted in outrage over single-use plastic waste. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa, an estimated eight-million tonnes of plastic enter oceans globally.

Single-use plastic is more commonly not recycled, which means it is more likely to end up in the ocean or landfills. After a video emerged of a plastic straw wedged into a turtle’s nostril, consumers turned on plastic straws. Soon, most restaurants offered metal or biodegradable alternatives – or simply no straw at all.

Single-use plastic bags seem to be next on the chopping block. Countries like Kenya and Taiwan have completely banned plastic bags, while others like the United Kingdom (UK) are dedicated to eliminating plastic waste. Some states in the United States (US), like Hawaii, California and New York, are also banning plastic products.

While South Africa is still discussing the potential ban on single-use plastic, some retailers and shopping centres have already moved away from the material. However, not everyone is in support of this approach.

Anton Hanekom, executive director of Plastics SA, states: “Moves by retailers and shopping malls to ban plastic shopping bags are simplistic, rash responses to a complex problem. What’s required is a rational solution to the genuine crisis of plastic pollution, not an emotional reaction.”

He argues that inadequate waste management and recycling infrastructure lies at the root of the plastic pollution problem rather than the consumption of single-use plastic. He references a 2017 study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency titled: Life-cycle assessment of grocery carrier bags.

“Many of those championing a ban on plastic bags fail to understand the impact that alternative materials have on the environment,” Hanekom says. “In a ground-breaking study on plastic bags, the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food found that many of the so-called alternatives would have a far greater negative environmental impact than plastic bags.

“The report indicated that organic cotton shopping bags, for instance, would have to be reused a staggering
20 000 times to have the same low environmental impact as plastic shopping bags.”

The report considered each material’s impact on all the various environmental factors. Cotton was the lowest ranking when all the indicators were considered, but when looking only at climate change, organic cotton bags had a recommended reuse rate of 149 times, while the reuse rate for conventional cotton bags was 52 times.

According to research organisation Nielsen, South Africans do about 60 shopping trips a year. Cotton bags, thus only need to last between one and three years to have a positive impact on climate change. In addition, the study doesn’t mention the convenience of easily washing and mending a cotton bag compared to single-use plastic bags.

Furthermore, cotton isn’t the only alternative. According to the study, biopolymer bags – made from bioplastic – only needs to be used 42 times when looking at all environmental factors. Both bleached and unbleached paper bags had reused rate of 43 times considering all environmental factors.

However, the most significant fact excluded from Hanekom’s study is that Denmark encourages the use of single-use plastic bags to dispose of waste as this gets turned into energy. In 2005, Denmark had 29 waste-to-energy plants that treated 3,5-million tonnes, or 26 percent, of the country’s waste.

Today, an incredible 93 percent of the country’s waste is recycled or incinerated at the waste-to-energy plants. The electricity generated through this process powers about 400 000 households in Denmark, while the heat generated warms more than 12 percent of residential buildings through the district heating system.

However, circumstances in South Africa are different. The first and only waste-to-energy plant in the country opened in Cape Town in 2017. While the amount of waste diverted varies, based on the source, it seems that the most of it is sent to landfills, where the plastic toxins can seep into the ground and potentially contaminate water resources.

Stats SA concluded that there were 108-million tonnes of waste in 2011, of which only ten percent was recycled or reused. Based on extrapolated 2011 figures, there were 111-million tonnes of waste in 2016, of which 75 percent ended up in landfills. There is also a lack of space in the landfills to accommodate the amount of waste.

In 2018, Independent Online quoted Mpact spokesperson Donna Noble-Marie: “South Africa’s biggest problem is that we are running short of landfill sites. We should start encouraging South Africans to start recycling at home and not mix the recyclables with other waste. Government policies are on the right track and in place to encourage recycling.”

Hanekom also highlights recycling as a potential solution. There is quite a strong recycling culture in South Africa. The country consumes less plastic than many of its peers at around 30 to 50 kg of plastic per person per year, compared to 136 and 139 kg of plastic consumed respectively by the US and the European Union (EU).

According to the Plastics SA 2017 National Plastics Recycling Survey, about 43,7 percent of plastic in South Africa is recycled, and the recycling industry supports 5 837 formal jobs.

The US recycles only around 4,4 percent of its plastic waste with the EU recycling 42,2 percent.

Hanekom comments: “In 2017, the plastics industry collected more than 43 percent of packaging placed on the market for recycling with less than 700 000 t going to landfill. The industry is showing year-on-year increases in the recycling rate, but those efforts alone are not going to win the war on plastic pollution.”

He urges government to fix the inadequate waste-management facilities and improve infrastructure for collecting and recycling plastic. “Government can do this if it ring-fences the plastic bag levy, which has increased from three cents per bag when introduced in 2003, to 12 cents in 2018,” Hanekom says.

“The nearly R2 billion that has been raised through the levy so far should never have been absorbed into the black hole of our national fiscus. Instead, the levy should have been used for its intended purpose: to develop better recycling facilities and encourage sustainable consumer behaviour.”

With inadequate infrastructure, it seems unlikely that government will be able to provide additional support to the recycling industry. Time is also against South Africa – both in terms of landfill space and global warming. Despite reservations from Plastics SA, banning single-use plastic might be the most effective, short-term solution to the single-use plastic waste problem.

In any case, both government and industry might not have much of a choice with the push-back from consumers. The 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report by Nielson estimated that 66 percent of consumers are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. This percentage is even higher among millennials.

Many brands are adapting to this market trend. Pantene, a manufacturer of hair products, is designing refillable aluminium bottles for its products, for example. US-based online retailer Loop is also repurposing the milkman strategy in which the retailer owns the packaging rather than the customer.

Loop provides its clients with their familiar products in reusable packaging delivered in a tote bag or cotton bag (as opposed to a cardboard box) with the client scheduling a convenient time for empty packaging to be collected. The customer then has the option of refilling or receiving their deposit back on the packaging.

Tom Szaky, CEO of Loop, in an interview with Vogue, notes: “Recycling is a solution to the system of waste, but not the root cause. It’s like taking Tylenol every morning because you have a migraine. The Tylenol is a solution to the symptom, but you aren’t solving the reason you have a migraine.”

While the future of single-use plastic remains somewhat uncertain, the industry can be sure of disruptions and a demand for sustainable solutions from customers, which might require plastic manufacturers to invest more in alternatives or waste diversion and recycling.

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