Plastics, we know, are a major scourge on the environment littering the oceans, and blocking drainages. According to Greenpeace Africa over 2 billion single-use plastic bags are used every year in South Africa. Half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once, after which it is thrown away and ends up in either landfills or being consumed by marine species, the organisation states. Which makes it all the more surprising that South Africa is not supporting the establishment of a new multilateral environmental agreement on plastics. According to leaked confidential documents, the South African government plans to vote against a new Global Treaty to stop plastic pollution. Greenpeace says that roughly 70 other countries have stepped up in support of the treaty so far.
We spoke to thirty-four year old Angelo Louw, Greenpeace Africa’s digital mobilisation officer and pan-African plastic project lead about plastic. When he started working at Greenpeace Africa, he helped grassroots organisations start and manage campaigns on VUMA.EARTH. “I’ve learnt how badly plastic affects underprivileged communities, and how industries and government collude and benefit from it.”
Angelo promotes the refill and reuse distribution model as a way to break our reliance on single-use plastic.
What is your greatest frustration with trying to reduce the negative impact of problem plastics?
I hate the greenwashing. I hate how corporations pretend to care about the problem they’ve created but then continue to perpetuate it by making more plastic. I hate that our government is complicit. It’s sad. Real solutions like reuse and refill already exist. But these are at risk of being dropped for false solutions like recycling.
Explain ‘reuse and refill’.
We see a lot of water refilling stations popping up in retailers across the country, for example. People can bring their own bottles and top up their purified drinking water. However, these are still focused in the suburbs, and should be rolled out more extensively. This would make such a big difference in areas and countries that do not have a safe water supply, and that rely on bottled water for drinking water. I’ve also seen refill stations like these for soft drinks like Coca-Cola at gas stations all around the US.
What is your opinion of the extended producer regulations in SA?
There is so much emphasis on recycling; in fact the 28-page document only mentions reuse and refill twice. It’s pretty clear the direction the government is moving into; and with the department of environment, forestry and fisheries’ spokesperson hinting that they have already formalised an application process for waste trade in SA, their profit-driven motives become glaringly obvious. Most countries are desperately fighting against waste trade. So, I would say we are bound to see “the impact” pretty soon, it just might not be the impact we are all hoping for.
Tell me about the Pan African Plastics Project.
Our project aims to mobilise people across the continent to join the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement so that we can force governments to adopt stricter plastic regulations, and to adequately enforce their existing legislation on single-use plastic. Countries like Kenya and Rwanda are leading the pack, and have reported massive improvements to their environment in the few years since they adopted their single-use plastic bans. Of course, there are challenges such as the smuggling of contraband plastic in, but that’s why it is so important for more countries to follow suit and rid Africa of harmful, nonessential plastic altogether.
Last year, Greenpeace published an article about the top plastic polluters. A lot of these companies are producing convenience and fast foods and drinks. The plastic problem has now become a problem of lifestyle.
How can we change lifestyle behaviour?
There is a consumer culture that corporations have imposed on us. We don’t ask for this packaging, they force it onto our lives. So yes, we can make conscious choices to support companies that have reuse and refill distribution; however, we need greater systemic change that needs to be driven from the top. Corporates need to switch to sustainable distribution, and governments need to drive this shift by law.
Is recycling a viable solution?
It’s pretty evident by the amount of plastic we see in the environment right now that recycling is not the solution. It is clear that industry backs recycling because it is not the solution; because recycling doesn’t drop the demand for profit-making virgin plastic, it only creates the illusion that it does. We need to address the issue at the source, cut down the production of single-use plastic. We can only do this once refill and reuse distribution becomes the new normal.
Is there enough of a sense of urgency about plastics?
I would say that most people understand the extent of the plastic problem. It’s getting really hard to ignore, and they are deeply concerned. The government, as usual, is disconnected. They place profits over people. They are digging an early grave for South African citizens, because plastic at every stage of its lifecycle is harmful to human beings. Wouldn’t it be nice if they, for once, did the right thing?
- Please urge the South African government to take a firmer stand against plastic by committing their support to a proposed global plastic treaty. Simply visit the Greenpeace Africa website for more information.
- Images: Main from Naja Bertolt Jense / Unsplash and the other one supplied