All actors in the plastics value chain have a role to play in dealing with the plastic pollution challenge, and while there are various policies and actions in place, independent conservation organisation the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says little can be achieved without deep collaboration, accountability and transparency.
“Critical decisions need to be made in the short term, including the alignment towards a common vision, the fast-tracking of a mandatory extended producer responsibility scheme (underpinned by time-bound national targets), and supporting a new global treaty to address plastic pollution,” the organisation has said at the launch of its 'South African Plastics Facts & Futures Report' on November 4.
The report focuses on the topic of moving beyond pollution management to a circular economy in South Africa.
The comprehensive, 134-page report is aimed at researchers, industry actors, policymakers and interested individuals. It explores the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of plastic pollution, with a focus on plastic packaging as a major contributor.
With the aim of stopping the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature, the WWF states that for too long the burden of plastic pollution has been laid at the door of consumers and individuals with a heavy emphasis on awareness, recycling and clean-up operations.
However, the organisation notes that it is becoming increasingly clear that the problem of plastic in the environment needs to be tackled by all players, including producers, recyclers and end-of lifecycle stakeholders.
Co-author of the report, WWF South Africa circular plastics economy project manager Lorren de Kock says the situation was brought even more to the fore when millions of small plastic nurdles washed up on beaches in the Western Cape during October.
Nurdles are small plastic pellets used as a raw material in the manufacture of plastic products. By their very nature, they are difficult to locate, sift through and sort and ultimately remove from a natural environment.
“While beach clean-ups are well-intentioned, they do not tackle the source of the problem. A situation like this should be similar to an oil spill where there are penalties and polluting companies are held to account,” she states.
De Kock adds that, with the price of virgin plastic at an all-time low – owing to the falling oil price and massive investment into virgin polymer production – virgin plastic is the cheapest material to procure. This is impacting on the recycling industry, which has resulted in a lack of demand for recycled plastic materials.
“The reality is that plastic pollution is a complex societal issue requiring interventions at each stage of the lifecycle. These include the critical need for a reduction in production and consumption and substitution with alternative materials,” she says.
De Kock notes that delivery models also need to adapt, which includes reuse and refill, with more investment and support for recycling and appropriate disposal at end of life plastic products.
The report identifies plastic products beyond packaging that need to be given attention in South Africa. These include sanitary towels, disposable nappies, cigarette butts and certain types of fishing gear – all of which are not currently well managed and add to plastic leakage into nature, the WWF states.
It finds that although plastic is a complex material that provides value across several industries, its strength and durability nonetheless have resulted in widespread persistence in the environment, threatening human health and the health of marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems.
These negative externalities, once quantified, “reveal the true costs of plastic”, the report claims.
It also notes that in tackling the plastic pollution challenge, a life cycle approach is required as failures occurring at each stage of the plastics life cycle all contribute to the problem.
The report aims not only to consolidate the mounting evidence to highlight the risks of a “business-as-usual” path (for the plastics supply chain) but also to identify first steps and levers to deliver significant positive impact in this complex system.
The WWF states that this complexity means that no single organisation can solve the plastic pollution challenge by itself and that an inclusive, collaborative process with multiple stakeholders across the plastics value chain is needed.
Ultimately, this process requires a strong focus on prevention of plastic pollution, rather than mitigating impacts once they have already occurred.
“Addressing the plastic pollution crisis must not be done at the expense of other increasing environmental problems, but if done right, it will result in net positive environmental outcomes for our planet across a range of environmental and social stressors,” says De Kock.