Plastic Pollution is a problem
Plastics are inexpensive, lightweight and durable materials, which can be readily moulded into a variety of products that find use in a wide range of applications (Hopewell, 2009 and UN 2018). They have substantial benefits and have remained part of our lives for many years now. Plastics are found in containers and packaging (e.g., soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles). They are also found in durable (e.g., appliances, furniture) and non-durable goods (e.g., diapers, trash bags, cups and utensils, medical devices). The plastics economy makes a significant contribution to the GDP of many countries through the support it provides to the manufacturing and other related sectors.
However, when they reach end of life, most plastic materials escape into the land and marine environment and take time to disappear. Plastics are increasingly considered as one of the problematic waste streams that are occupying landfill sites, illegal dumps, rivers and ultimately, oceans with dire consequences for aquatic life. Jambeck et al 2017 asserts that plastic waste presents not only an environmental issue for African countries, but also a major socio-economic development challenge, which affects biodiversity, infrastructure, tourism and fisheries livelihoods.
South Africa is addressing the challenge of plastic pollution and its impacts on human health and the environment. The study conducted by the DEA in 2017 on Plastics Materials Flow confirms that packaging constitutes the largest component of single-use plastic waste that is generated in South Africa. The generation of single-use plastic waste in South Africa is likely to increase with projected increases in population growth and urban expansion. The growing middle class is creating large consumer markets for plastic goods, especially single-use packaging products. The sprawling informal economy has given rise to non-compliant single use plastic carrier bags that easily find their way into the waste stream. Moreover, most informal settlements are situated next to the main rivers in South Africa (e.g. Hennops, Jukskei, Palmiet, Umngeni e.t.c). The poor waste infrastructure and illegal dumping sites in these areas result in single-use plastic waste entering the river systems through to the ocean.
In South Africa, numerous efforts have been made through policy interventions that seek to discourage and minimise the use of plastics with an aim of addressing their effects on the environment and human health:
- The National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS) puts emphasis on the need to re-use, recycle and recover waste, including plastic waste.
- The major policy intervention to curb the generation of plastic waste in South Africa was the shared National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) agreement between government, organised business and organised labour to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to address the challenges associated with plastic waste, particularly from plastic bags.
- The plastic bag regulations and the compulsory specifications for plastic carrier bags and flat bags (VC8087).
- The plastic bag levy was introduced as part of controlling consumer behaviour and attitudes towards plastic bags.
However, a number of years have passed by, yet plastics remain one of the popular waste streams found in illegal dumping sites, landfill sites and oceans. For example, the latest National State of Waste Report indicates that over 50% of plastics in South Africa still end up in landfill sites. The current policy instruments have proven to be ineffective in delivering the expected results. There are persistent challenges with respect to compliance and enforcement. We have also witnessed the increase in plastic bag use over time, since the promulgation of the above policy instruments.