After recent big ocean swells, SA’s beaches have become clear evidence of a plastic crisis. We collected two bags of waste in less than 10 minutes on Camps Bay beach last week. There are the usual culprits such as earbuds, bottle tops, masks, single sweet wrappings, toothbrushes … but most of the litter is small pieces that have been broken up and degraded by the force of the ocean, sand and wind.
Yes, plastic can be an efficient, durable and affordable material for many uses but it should only be used if its end-of-life is managed properly. Our dependence on plastic is a dangerous habit, and there is no indication that we are even beginning to break it. Quite the opposite.
Research by Dr Peter Ryan from UCT shows that between 1994 and 2012, beach litter in Cape Town increased by 300%, more than three quarters of which is plastic packaging. Globally production of plastic is expected to triple by 2050. A UCT study indicates that only 17% of plastic is recycled in SA. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that globally only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled.
This is alarming. Besides the multiple environmental and socio-economic impacts, how the plastics industry contributes to climate change has largely gone under the public radar. Project manager: circular plastics economy at WWF SA Lorren de Kock says: “Plastics have climate change impacts at every stage of the material’s life cycle.”
Extended producer responsibility will not reduce production of plastics, but it should increase the rate of end-of-life solutions and reduce litter.
Almost all plastics begin life as fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted throughout the plastics value chain: extraction and transport; refining and manufacturing; waste management; and the impact on the environment.
The current level of emissions of plastics is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to ensure that the rise in global temperatures as a result of climate change is kept below 1.5Cº.
In a world in which the devastation caused by climate change — especially for poor communities — it is already abundantly evident, action on plastics is needed. Urgently.
Fortunately, public opinion is on the side of change. Plastic pollution, especially among young people, ranks as one of the three most pressing environmental concerns, along with climate change and water pollution, according to a survey included in the Business Case for a UN Treaty report. We see this also in the number of people attending and interested in beach cleanups. The Beach Co-op has hosted 180 cleanups along SA’s coastline since 2017, with 8,670 people attending. During these beach cleanups we collect data using the Dirty Dozen methodology. The Dirty Dozen is the list of most commonly found items. People want to contribute to science and to better understand plastic pollution. But we need to address the issue at the source. We can’t continue cleaning up after producers.
Beach cleanups alone won’t stop climate change.
In SA, the plastics industry employs about 60,000 people and contributes about 2% of GDP, but new regulation is seeking to ensure that producers take more responsibility for what happens to their product after its final use, by funding producer-responsibility organisations such as PETCO to manage recycling.
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) will not reduce production of plastics, but it should increase the rate of end-of-life solutions and reduce litter. This approach has its critics, including Greenpeace’s Angelo Louw. “It’s evident by the amount of plastic we see in the environment right now that recycling is not the solution,” he says.
The South African Plastics Pact, on the other hand, currently supports 23 signed up corporations through information and collaboration, to reduce plastic litter and to find ways to reduce plastic use more generally. Using an ambitious set of four 2025 targets, the pact is working towards creating a circular economy for plastics in SA. To date, the pact’s Oliver Bonstein says: “We’re pretty much on track to meet the targets set for 2025.”
Despite efforts to the contrary, there is no sign that plastic pollution and leakage rates are slowing globally. Locally, it’s too early to tell. “We won’t know if the EPR and the Plastics Pact are having an impact until we see changes on our beaches and in other environments,” says De Kock.
In the meantime, it’s clear that we don’t live in an age of reason.
The plastics industry master plan, tabled in 2020, encourages growth in this sector despite its environmental impact. Government needs to think about development and the environment as one thing. “We cannot separate them,” says De Kock.
She warns that many petrochemical organisations have plans to expand into plastics due to regulations and restrictions on other fossil fuel usages. This, De Kock says, “is leading to a flooding of the market and further reduction in costs of plastics”.
We need to develop a whole new response to immediately reduce the production and use of plastic. Not simple, but crucial. New green jobs must be created in industries that deliver cleaner and greener forms of packaging and much more effort devoted to recycling and reducing the production of virgin plastic. As the Centre for International Environmental Law states: “Stopping the expansion of petrochemical and plastic production and keeping fossil fuels in the ground is a critical element to address the climate crisis.”
- Jackie May is the founder of www.twyg.co.za and Aaniyah Omardien is the founder of www.thebeachcop.org – they drive the annual Plastic Free Mzansi campaign to raise awareness about problem plastics. Pic supplied by The Beach Co-op