Plastics Bags tread lightly on Mother Earth

The South African plastics industry has welcomed the recent findings released by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), confirming that reusable, plastic shopping bags have the lowest environmental footprint compared to carrier bags made from alternative materials.

Read our latest Digimag here.

The study was funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and aimed to identify which bag is “best” in the South African context. It assessed sixteen different types of carrier bags – including the standard single-use, 24 micron HDPE bags, as well as a number of reusable and biodegradable alternatives.


Twenty-one environmental and socio-economic indicators were used to assess the life cycle of each bag, including water use, land use, global warming, the impacts of pollution, impact on employment and the affordability for consumers.


According to Plastics SA’s Executive Director, Anton Hanekom, the local study confirmed the findings of similar studies which have been conducted elsewhere in the world, such as a recent analysis[1] by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food which found that cotton bags have to be re-used 7,100 times in order to have the same cumulative environmental impact as using standard plastic bags which are easy to produce, require very little energy and produce very little carbon dioxide emissions.


“What is particularly welcoming, is that the CSIR study assessed a broad range of environmental and socio-economic indicators that are unique to our South African context. It has confirmed our message that our locally produced, plastic bags (ranging from 24 microns right up to 70 microns) are ideally suited to be reused and should therefore not be considered a single-use plastic,” Hanekom said.


The majority of the plastic carrier bags used in most African, American, Asian and European markets, range between 12 and 17 microns in thickness. In South Africa, however, retail plastic bags are regulated to be a minimum of 30 micron, plus or minus a 20%  variance. Although the CSIR study focused primarily on testing the plastic carrier bags of that were between 30 and 70 microns, it confirmed that plastic carrier bags performed best overall – provided that they are reused.


“Our retail plastic bags are unique and unquestionably reusable for its primary function, namely shopping, but also have a multitude of secondary uses in South African households. Moreover, it is important to highlight that our locally produced carrier bags are now recyclable and a large percentage of them even have recycled content,” Hanekom stressed.


The South African plastics industry reached a major milestone in 2018 when the local bag manufacturers improved the recyclability of their bags by reducing the filler content. At the same time, South African retailers agreed to change their carrier bags from virgin, to include post-consumer recycled content.  This move created a much-needed and substantial market for post-consumer recycled material. It was hailed as an important breakthrough for the industry and its efforts to address the issue of single-use plastics polluting the environment. By ensuring that plastic carrier bags become part of a circular economy, a win-win situation has been created for the environment and for the industry.


“The manufacturing and recycling of plastic carrier bags not only help to create employment to more than 60 000 South Africans, but also contribute vast sums of money to state funds. Plastic bags are still the only packaging item for which an environmental tax is levied. Since the beginning of April this year, plastic bag levies have increased to 25 cents, which is expected to generate more than R250 million for the state coffers. As an industry we are appealing to the Government to ensure that at least some of these funds are used to help us boost recycling and grow a circular economy,” Hanekom appeals.


Weighing in on the matter on behalf of plastic bag manufacturers, Phillip Abelheim, Chief Executive Officer of Transpaco Limited and one of South Africa’s biggest manufacturers of plastic bags, said the latest research findings were encouraging to a manufacturing sector that has been until recently, been on the receiving end of harsh criticism.


“Plastic bags were never intended to only be used once. In fact, they were invented in 1959 by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin with purpose of saving the planet. Because they were significantly stronger than paper bags, he created these bags to help save the forests by being used over and over again. To Thulin, who was known for always carrying a plastic bag folded in his pocket, the idea that people only use their bags once and then throw them away, would be bizarre and completely go against what they were originally designed to do,” Abelheim says.


“We believe that plastic carrier bags and plastic items in general have an important role to play in our modern society. The recent worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has once again proven that the world relies on plastics to help prevent the spreading of diseases, protect food and to keep us healthy. Plastic products are strong and versatile and offer us convenience at a low price. The ongoing challenge lies in preventing this wonder material 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 and new products,” Hanekom concludes

For more information, visit


Tax on single-use plastics is not the best solution

During his 2019 Budget Speech, finance minister Tito Mboweni announced an update to existing environmental taxes, including a levy on single-use plastics. While the intention may be good, not all of these taxes are achieving their intended environmental objectives. Taxing single-use plastics is not the best solution to the problem of plastic pollution

A good example of failed objectives is the plastic bag levy that was introduced in 2003. This tax on plastic shopping bags has had little impact on consumer behaviour since it was announced. The Department of Environmental Affairs has acknowledged to the South African Parliament that citizens have continued to use plastic bags despite quadrupling the levy between 2003 and 2018.

This levy has not been ring-fenced for the sole purpose of protecting the environment from plastic pollution. Almost R2-billion has been raised through the plastic bag levy, yet little has been achieved in terms of environmental clean-ups and pollution eradication. A tax on single-use plastics will probably have similar outcomes.

Tax on single-use plastics will not curb pollution

The South African government is currently investigating the opportunity to tax single-use plastic products such as straws, beverage cups, food containers and packaging. However, these taxes may not discourage consumers from purchasing single-use plastics, let alone littering or dumping them after they have used been used.

Plastic SA is committed to tackling plastic pollution and we support any effort to remove plastic waste from the environment. We will work with the government and our industry stakeholders to promote the reuse and recycling of plastic products. It is unacceptable that nearly 8 million tonnes of plastic are currently being washed into the world’s oceans every year.

A tax on single-use plastics will not encourage people to recycle their waste; education and awareness-raising campaigns will. South Africans are becoming more aware of the problem of plastic pollution in the environment, so they are willing to recycle more. The government can help the waste management industry to improve its infrastructure so that more waste can be collected and recycled.

This tax will drive inflation

A tax on single-use plastics is an emotional response to a global concern. However, it will have a significant impact on the economy rather than the environment. This tax is likely to increase inflation as manufacturers and retailers increase their prices to cover the costs of the tax. This will put added pressure on an industry that employs over 60 000 people.

The real solution lies in developing innovative and environmentally-friendly plastic products. Rather than taxing the industry and the consumer, the national government can work with plastics producers to help develop these innovative products. Government funding will go a long way to helping the plastics industry develop new, eco-friendly plastic products.

Plastics SA is determined to find a solution to problematic plastics usage and disposal. We are currently developing an intricate plan to deal with single-use plastics that is aligned with international standards and takes into consideration South Africa’s environmental, socio-political and economic needs.


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.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.