Plastics SA and the entire industry supports a world that is free from plastic waste. This is the premise behind #PlasticFreeJuly – a global campaign that aims to raise awareness of single-use plastics and the problem of excessive plastic waste in the environment. For the past 25 years, Plastics SA has encouraged reuse, recycling and proper disposal methods for plastic waste.
The fact is that plastics are a valuable commodity. It would be impossible to live a normal life without them. We use plastics every day, whether consciously or unconsciously. “Plastic is an integral part of our modern lifestyle. Strong and versatile, plastic exists because we want convenience at a low price,” says Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom.
“It keeps our food fresh, ensures food safety, gives us tamper-proof medications and the list continues. If we were to remove it from our lives, we would have to get rid of almost everything we wear, live in, or work with. The challenge lies in preventing plastic from ending up in the environment after it has been used, and making sure that it is properly discarded so that it can be recycled into a multitude of different new products,” he explains.
The plastic manufacturing industry and its stakeholders do not like to see plastic waste in our rivers, oceans and public spaces – especially during #PlasticFreeJuly. “Our message has always been – and will continue to be – that plastics are too valuable to waste. We have been working relentlessly to raise awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution as part of our drive to see a world without plastic waste,” says Hanekom.
Plastic production and environmental protection can work together
The production of plastic products and the need to protect the environment from pollution can both work at the same time. One does not need to mean the demise of the other. Over 60 000 South Africans are employed in the plastics industry, making it a vital sector of the economy. The country currently has some of the highest plastics recycling rates in the world.
“During 2018, South Africa converted more than 1.8 million tonnes of polymer into plastic products. During the same year, recycled plastic waste tonnages increased by 12.2% – giving South Africa a collection rate of 46.3% and making us a world leader in mechanical recycling,” explains Hanekom.
Environmental protection starts with proper waste disposal methods, which is our core message this #PlasticFreeJuly. Littering and illegal dumping are some of the biggest causes of plastic waste in the environment. “We could start by improving waste infrastructure so that more waste is recovered and prevented from entering the environment,” he suggests.
Plastic products should be reused as much as possible
Plastics SA is an advocate for reusing plastic products. The majority of food packaging, containers, beverage cups, and clamshells are sturdy enough to be reused multiple times. Even so-called single-use plastics such as shopping bags and straws should be kept and reused. South African shopping bags are regulated and manufactured to a thickness of 24-microns – almost double the thickness of plastic bags in most foreign countries.
This means that these ‘single-use’ products are strong enough to be reused several times, and cost a fraction of the price of cotton alternatives. To add to this, plastic shopping bags are fully recyclable. “To date, the fillers in plastic carrier bags have been removed, producing fully recyclable plastic bags. In some cases, 100 % certified recycled plastic material is used, making them more recyclable and creating a win-win situation for the environment,” Hanekom explains.
#PlasticFreeJuly should be about sustainability
While being a noble cause, #PlasticFreeJuly should encourage sustainability rather than a boycott of plastic products. Recent research around the negative consequences of banning plastics has been compounding around the globe. One such study published by the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit found that biodegradable plastics rarely break down in the ocean as intended.
The researchers suggest that labelling these ‘eco-friendly’ products as ‘biodegradable’ is misleading and could actually promote littering. Consumers may dump their biodegradable plastics in the belief that they will break down when this is not often the case.
Similarly, research conducted by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food found that cotton shopping bags need to be reused 7100 times to have the same cumulative environmental impact as conventional plastic shopping bags, which are far cheaper and more energy-efficient to produce.
#PlasticFreeJuly should, therefore, focus on sustainable practices with plastic products rather than an outright ban. “As waste collection improves, we see improved recovery models and the development of a circular economy. The solution lies in addressing our wasteful model of consumption by changing negligent human behaviour and embracing recycling. All it takes is a little willpower from everybody concerned,” Hanekom concludes.
Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.
Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.