- marine litter
- circular economy
- Plastics alternatives - blessing or curse?
- zero plastics to landfill
- recycling survey 2017
Marine litter is a global problem that needs to be tackled on a global scale. Effective solutions that prevent all types of litter from entering the oceans, need to be developed. Plastics are valuable and make modern life convenient and easy, but they need to enter the recycling stream to maintain their value and be kept out of the environment. Read more.
Find out more:
Representatives from Plastics|SA, Sustainability Retailers Forum, Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO) and the Plastic Converters Association (PCA) formed a working group at the end of last year with one common goal in sight: finding suitable and workable plastic recycling solutions that will not only benefit the environment and consumers, but also our economy by creating jobs and increasing the amount of recycled plastic that ultimately finds its way into recycled plastic products. The following recommendations were agreed upon to provide a clear path for moving forward and guiding processes that require detailed implementation plans:
Calls for action such as these make it clear that consumers around the world are tired of visible litter. By responding on social media platforms with zealous passion, they demand to see an end to plastic packaging such as carrier bags, drinking straws and cotton ear buds.
Recognizing an opportunity to gain significant marketing and PR mileage some retailers and brand-owners were quick to respond to these public outcries by introducing alternatives. Alternatives included paper bags and piloting a compostable bag made from starches, cellulose, vegetable oils and combinations as an “environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags” to replace all plastic carrier bags, barrier bags and fruit and vegetable bags.
To the uninformed, this might seem an excellent and practical solution to solve an irritating problem. The reality, unfortunately, is far from the truth. Many of the so-called “plastic alternatives” that are now flooding the market have not been properly evaluated.
Offering a compostable carrier bag to consumers sounds good in theory; however further scrutiny reveals that these bags and other biodegradable plastic products will only degrade in a properly managed composting facility and definitely not in the normal suburban compost heap. According to the internationally accepted standard for compostability (EN 13432), the packaging must be mixed with organic waste and maintained under test scale composting conditions for 12 weeks. If not kept under ideal conditions, these bags will not biodegrade and will most likely end up in one of the country’s landfills (also not ideal composting environment) or worse – in the recycling stream where it will contaminate the entire stream and render more material unrecyclable.
South Africa has a robust and well-developed plastics recycling industry that provided jobs to more than 52 000 collectors who collects waste that is mechanically recycled into new raw materials (more than 313 700 tons of plastic material) in 2017 alone. Thanks to their dedicated efforts and the South Africans committed to recycling, 214 220 tons of CO² and enough landfill space to fill 714 Olympic sized swimming pools were saved in one year - this is the equivalent weight of 560 Airbus A380 aeroplanes, saving enough fuel to keep 178 000 cars on the road for one year!
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of these replacement materials.
All of these products will eventually reach the end of life and will need to be discarded. A non-woven plastic re-usable plastic bag, for example, is not currently recycled in South Africa owing to the fact that the stitching and webbing used in the manufacture of the bag are made of different materials to the bulk of the bag.
Likewise, drinking straws made from alternate materials such as glass or bamboo tubing are neither currently recycled in South Africa nor, collected by waste pickers due to their low value and weight.
On the other hand, when combined with a responsible, well-managed waste management system, a recyclable product not only underwrites and supports a circular economy, but also ensures that precious resources are protected and reused for as long as possible. Rejecting a “fit for purpose” plastic packaging material with a low carbon footprint, in favour of an alternative material that is imported, more expensive, with a higher carbon footprint and potentially uses scarce food resources as raw material could creating an even bigger problem, rather than solve this one.
Plastics don’t litter – people do. Opting for biodegradable packaging is not going to change the human behavior of littering. Consumers need to commit to protecting our environment and educate themselves on the facts around packaging alternatives, and the benefits of effective plastic recycling and correct disposal of materials they no longer need. The marketing jargon promoting these replacement materials should be researched before boldly switching to alternative materials.
Similarly, it is of vital importance that legislators, local government, consumers and the plastics industry continue to work together on developing solutions that are sustainable, well researched and properly evaluated. Only through this combined effort can we ensure that the resources are utilized and managed efficiently and cater to an increasing population seeking the unrivaled benefits offered by plastics packaging when it comes to preventing food waste, extending shelf life of products, and protection against breakage.
The South African plastics industry is committed to keeping South Africa’s water sources free of plastic pollution. Reducing the amount of plastics that make their way into streams, rivers and the ocean is one of the biggest focus areas for the plastics industry worldwide today.
Plastics|SA was one of the first signatories of The Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter, a global declaration and public commitment by the international plastics community, signed in March 2011, to address the issue of plastics in the marine environment. Operation Clean Sweep was developed as an important step towards implementing the core principles of this declaration. Find out more about Operation Clean Sweep.
“When we re-launched Operation Clean Sweep in South Africa as one of our product stewardship programmes last year, our call went out to every segment of the plastics industry, including plastic producers, transporters, bulk terminal operators, recyclers and plastics processors, to implement good housekeeping practices. Every employee of every factory has a role to play if we are to achieve our goal of zero pellet, flake and powder loss. We need the commitment from every person in every company, from top management to shop floor employees, to help protect the environment and save valuable resources,” said Anton Hanekom, Executive Director.
Pellet, flake and powder loss has many negative impacts on individual companies, on the plastics industry as a whole and on the environment. Slips and falls caused by pellet, flake or powder spills in factories are one of the causes of accidents in the plastics industry, resulting in lost work time, higher worker compensation costs and lower employee morale. Once spilled, they can end up in waterways and the ocean if they are casually swept into storm drains instead of properly cleaned up and discarded.
“All employees in every aspect of the industry must be educated on how to properly handle and dispose of plastic pellets with the goal of zero pellet loss. Every staff member has a role to play in eliminating plastic pellets, flake and powder loss. It’s the little things that count – a few pellets, flakes and powder here, a handful there. They all add up when you consider the thousands of facilities in the plastics industry and the frequency with which plastic pellets, flakes and powder are loaded and unloaded,” Hanekom stresses.
While consumers are responsible for the proper recycling and disposal of used consumer products and packaging, Plastics|SA agrees that the plastics industry is responsible for proper containment of plastic pellets, flakes and powder. The impact of ingested marine debris is significant and warrants serious efforts to prevent plastic materials from entering the environment.
“Eliminating pellet, flake and powder loss is not only good for the environment. It is also good for business performance. Whilst our ultimate goal is to help keep plastic pellets, flakes and powder out of the environment, these efforts can also help improve relations with stakeholder groups and community organizations that expect the industry to minimize its environmental footprint.
Companies can enhance their reputations as good stewards of the environment — an increasingly important factor for attracting the investment community and high-quality employees. By ensuring that raw materials are not wasted, businesses can improve their bottom line, increase efficiency and leave a lasting legacy for future generations by helping us turn the tide on marine litter,” Hanekom concludes.