Every day, tonnes of plastic waste make its way into our oceans and our waterways. There, it will remain for hundreds of years unless collected and disposed of properly. In South Africa, the vast majority of waste on beaches is plastic (94%), with 77% of it being single-use. Single-use plastic is especially problematic, because much of it cannot be recycled. It is highly prone to littering and being spread around the environment by wind.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), more plastics have been produced in the first 18 years of the 21st century, than in the entire 20th century combined. The WWF has announced previously that South Africans use between 30 kg and 50 kg of plastic per person per year, with much of this plastic eventually ending up in the ocean.
During her maiden ministerial budget speech in July 2019, South Africa’s Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy, announced that she had given her department two years to produce a clean audit, while also stepping up efforts to eliminate the ‘take-make-use-dispose’ model so prevalent in South Africa. She also challenged Parliament to stop handing out plastic water bottles to members.
Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries begins review process
In July 2019, Creecy also confirmed that her department has begun a process to review how effective current policies concerning the management of plastic waste are, and whether a new policy direction needs to be considered. Creecy said the review process would be concluded within the current financial year. This statement was in response to a question by Democratic Alliance Member of Parliament, Annerie Weber, who asked whether the minister intended to ban the use of single-use plastic in South Africa.
Highlighting statistics published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) stating that there would be more plastics than fish (by weight) in our oceans by 2050 if immediate action was not taken, Creecy added that it was a matter of public record that the management of plastics in the world in general, as well as in SA, was suboptimal. She said that this issue needs to be addressed if we are to protect our oceans.
Discussions with various industries to combat single-use plastics
This current policy review by the department includes talks with the retail, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, as well as the packaging and paper industry. They are focusing on ways to combat the use of single-use plastics as well as seeking effective solutions for its disposal.
Previously in 2019, Plastics SA asked the government to take urgent steps to ring-fence the plastic bag levy, so that all its revenue can be used for recycling. Almost R2-billion has been raised since the plastic bag retail levy was introduced 15 years ago. However, only half of this amount has gone to recycling as the Treasury has allocated the rest to other departments.
Which single-use plastics are the worst offenders?
A recent study by the University of Cape Town shows that there are 10 common problem plastics found along South Africa’s coastline. In order of prevalence, they are:
- Shopping bags
- Coffee cups and coffee cup lids
- Water bottles
- Lollipop sticks
- Drinking spouts on sports drinks
- Individual sweet wrappers
- Fragments of cups
- Takeaway food packaging containers and food trays made from polystyrene
Stirrers, food wrappers and cigarette butts are also among the most common single-use plastics found in the environment. These waste items pose a mortal risk to birds and marine life, with many creatures mistaking plastics for food – or becoming entangled in discarded plastic waste.
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