Growth in use of bioplastics must be part of holistic policy approach to sustainability, says TIPS

2nd February 2021 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Contributing Editor

South Africa must leverage a range of policy interventions, from developing new production inputs, incentives and taxes, to public procurement and consumer engagement initiatives, to effectively tackle plastic waste and secure sustainable social, environmental and economic benefits from the use of biomaterials and bioplastics, independent nonprofit economic research institution Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) economist Muhammed Patel said during a webinar on February 2.

Biomaterials, and bioplastics specifically, presented a potential decarbonisation option for the petrochemicals value chain and to reduce the environmental impact of plastic production, consumption and waste. There were several initiatives in South Africa to increase the demand for bioplastics, but a comprehensive solution was required that accounted for the resources available and the context of transitioning producers and manufacturers to be able to use greater amounts of biomaterials and bioplastics, he said.

The policy advice is based on draft research on global trends, demand-side policy interventions and policy implications for South Africa conducted by Patel and fellow TIPS economist Lerato Monaisa.

"Plastics are used for many consumer goods and as vital inputs into industry. About 1 800 companies employ about 60 000 people in the industry in South Africa, and many of the companies are small and medium-sized enterprises."

Bioplastics are derived from many sources, including sugarcane and other renewable sources, but dedicating agricultural land to producing feedstock for plastics is not viable. To compete against fossil fuel-derived plastics, bioplastics researchers had to explore other sources, such as bacteria and marine algae, which means that some bioplastics are less resource-intensive and less harmful to the environment.

Additionally, not all bioplastics are biodegradable, nor are all fossil fuel derived plastics non-biodegradable. In certain use cases, specifically for infrastructure and construction, bioplastics must not degrade. Certain polymers, including polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and polylactic acid (PLA) plastics that are biodegradable, hold promise to replace a range of fossil fuel-derived plastics, as well as provide some opportunity for novel uses while also reducing the environmental impact of the production and use of plastics.

However, about 70% of plastics produced in the local market are polyethylene, polyvinylchloride and polypropylene, and about 49% of plastic used in South Africa is used for packaging. Therefore, there is policy space to introduce balanced regulations, taxes and incentives to drive greater use of bio-based plastics in plastic production, and to stipulate minimum content for packaging uses.

This approach was effectively employed in Japan, and was supported by mandatory public procurement of qualifying products, to enable producers to change their processes without having to completely transition to new production processes and equipment, simultaneously helping to drive up demand for bioplastics and their inputs, and allowing consumers to buy products produced in accordance with the government procurement regulations.

Further, it is expected that the price competitiveness of bioplastics compared to conventional plastics will only be achieved within five to ten years; although there are various factors that can affect this prediction.

Monaisa set out the various policy levers the research interrogated, and the research report also provides case studies of policy measures taken by different countries and the effectiveness of these measures in supporting a reduction of plastic waste and use of bio-based materials.

She detailed bans, taxes, standards and labelling, green public procurement, and social awareness policy levers, and provided insight into key policy considerations, such as monitoring and enforcement of taxes and bans, certification and labelling to support consumer decisions, behavioural changes and ease of green public procurement, and using public procurement to support industry- and nation-wide changes, as well as social awareness to encourage the use of bioplastics.

All of the policy measures studied can help to increase the demand for bioplastics, if they are implemented with cognisance of the effectiveness of monitoring, enforcement and suitability. South Africa can also employ all the policy levers studied, and has various initiatives, programmes and capacity that can support the move to more sustainable production and use of plastics, said Patel.

For example, Rwanda provides a useful case study for supply side incentives. When the country banned single-use plastics and various plastic products, it effectively policed adherence to the new regulations and also provided assistance and capital grants to manufacturers to transition to producing new products.

"The cohesive policy environment that supported producers in transitioning and assistance enabled them to change their processes and plants will be required in a local bioplastics policy," he said.

Bioplastics present producers with the opportunity to diversify their products and potentially grow their markets, and demand for packaging is expected to grow in India, China and Brazil, while pressure from international companies and supply chains to improve sustainability and reduce environmental impact will also drive use of bioplastics. There is also increasing demand globally for more sustainable goods and products.

Bioplastics sit within the broader bioeconomy policies, and the development of the bioeconomy and bioplastics policies are the purview of several national departments. Patel suggests that the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries can play a leading role in key initiatives, including the development of standards and labelling frameworks that will serve to inform consumer and government decision making, and can help to drive greater use and demand for bioplastics.