Although the plastics and plastic products industry contributed about R70-billion to South Africa’s economy in 2019, according to Plastics South Africa, plastic pollution has also had a significant impact on the country’s ecosystem services.
Therefore, Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy has called for South Africa to “move beyond” innovative pilot programmes and significant local partnerships and craft a roadmap for the country to address the problem of plastic waste leaking into the environment.
Plastic waste undermines the flood absorption and water storage capacity of the country’s wetlands, and threatens oceans, catchments, river systems and estuaries, as well as the crucial services they provide for both people and nature.
During a virtual plastics colloquium feedback session – the second since 2019 – on November 12, Creecy said this intervention was necessary to address the fact that “almost one-third of plastic waste leaks into the environment with devastating effects on water systems and marine biomes”.
She emphasised that any solution to the plastic waste problem “must include improved household waste collection at municipal level” and that the role of household waste separation and waste management, as well as educating communities about the dangers of plastic waste in the environment, and the role they can play in preventing it, must be prioritised.
Meeting under the theme Plastic Waste and the Circular Economy, the feedback session comes a week after the publication of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requirements for the paper, packaging and some single-use product sectors, as well as the lighting sector and the electrical and electronic equipment industry to register their plans to manage waste post the consumer stage of a product’s life cycle with the department.
This gives effect to Section 18 of the National Environmental Management Waste Act and charts a new approach to the management of waste in South Africa. It is expected to make a significant contribution in the diversion of waste from landfill, thereby increasing the recycling rate to achieve the objectives of the National Waste Management Strategy.
Additionally, the EPR is a means through which manufacturers and importers of products are required to bear a significant degree of responsibility for the impact their products have on the environment, from manufacture to the day they are discarded.
This ensures that products that can be recycled, or up-cycled, are and that waste diverted to landfill is kept at a minimum, fulfilling the Waste Management Strategy 2020’s goal of creating a circular economy, Creecy explained.
The department also intends to use the government’s district model to expand and strengthen municipal interventions to keep South Africa clean, while simultaneously assisting municipalities to apply for the Municipal Infrastructure Grant to procure compactor trucks that aid in waste collection and landfill compactors for operation of landfill sites.
Referring to the call by advocacy groups for a total ban on plastic bag use, the Minister said the colloquium “needs to take a firm decision to remove a range of single-use plastics from [the country’s] production and consumption processes with clear and incremental targets on a [yearly] basis”.
Additionally, the new regulatory framework has been strongly influenced by the various Working Groups set up after the 2019 colloquium, held in Gauteng, and therefore includes matters such as ensuring environmental labelling conforms to acceptable South African Bureau of Standards’ standards and promotes public awareness and influences greener choices on the part of consumers.
Other standards that have been critical to the focus of the colloquium are those of compostable plastics.
“If we are to look purely at figures, it is clear that actions taken by government and the private sector are resulting in positive change,” the Minister said.
She added that the use of recyclable plastic “has increased from 293 000 t in 2015 to 337 000 t in 2019”, with 58 000 income opportunities and R2-billion injected into the microenterprise sector.
Therefore, Creecy is of the mind that the circular waste economy, a more sustainable developmental path, offers “opportunities for sustainable resource use, technological innovation and job creation”.