On 30 January, South Africa became the first country in Africa to sign up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Pact network, joining the United Kingdom, Chile, France, Portugal and the Netherlands.
The official launch of the South African Plastics Pact hosted by WWF-SA took place in Cape Town on 30 January, who has led on the development of the South African Plastics Pact, the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO) and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).
Funding for the initial development was provided by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, which also funds the WWF Circular Plastics Economy Programme. The implementation phase of the South African Plastics Pact, which started late last year, was made possible with funding from the UN Strategic Learning Exchange (SLE).
‘The momentum around the plastic pollution issue in South Africa over the past year has been incredible,’ says WWF-SA’s Circular Plastics Economy project manager Lorren de Kock, an industrial engineer with a master’s degree in environmental and process systems engineering. The focus of the South African Plastics Pact is on plastic packaging and the aim is to create a circular economy for plastic (including the reuse, recycling, repurposing and composting of plastic items) as part of accelerating a global circular economy to address the growing impacts of waste and resource depletion.
‘A large number of consumers and a growing number of retailers and brand owners in South Africa have rallied around the drive to address plastic pollution not only at end of pipe (waste management) but also at source and at each stage of the value chain, (design, production and use) of plastic packaging,’ says De Kock. Although voluntary at this stage, the South African Plastics Pact formalises collective national targets for the value chain.
Consumers, retailers and brand owners are an extremely powerful group, as they can insist on certain specifications from their packaging suppliers in line with the South African Plastics Pact targets. This includes redesigning, phasing down and phasing out items that cannot be reused or recycled (multi-use) or, in other words, are not circular over a five-year period.
To date there are more than 20 members and supporting members of the South African Plastics Pact who were announced at the launch. Members include companies that manufacture plastic packaging, such as plastic beverage bottles and plastic carrier bags (known as ‘converters’), brand owners and retailers who use plastic packaging for their products; recyclers; waste management companies; and the informal waste sector (reclaimers who collect a fair proportion of post-consumer plastics). Supporting members are institutions that are not directly involved with producing, selling or handling plastic and include government departments, research institutions and industry bodies.
‘An example of one of the targets of the South African Plastics Pact is a minimum of 30% post- consumer recycled content in plastic packaging,’ says De Kock. All plastic packaging also needs to be recycled in practice, reusable or compostable. All the targets of the South African Plastics Pact support the shift towards ultimately increasing the value of plastic and keeping it in the economy.
The plastics recycling industry is very precarious because it is based purely on economic principles and the price for recycled plastic is currently more than that of virgin material. This results in converters who produce plastic packaging using virgin material due to lower costs. Markets for recycled material could also become saturated with subsequent limited demand. This necessitated the South African Plastics Pact’s target of a minimum of 30% postconsumer recycled content in packaging to drive demand for recycled plastic in the market.’
De Kock explains it is all about implementing measures that extend responsibility for plastic pollution up the value chain. All stakeholders in the value chain, from the plastic resin producers and converters to the brand owners and retailers, right up to consumers and waste management, need to take ownership of this problem. She emphasises that this is not about demonising plastic – plastic is a remarkable product – it is the management of plastic and the system that are broken.
The team has put considerable effort into growing the South African Plastics Pact membership and convincing some of the largest plastic converters, brand owners and retailers to join. Naturally there is pushback from various industry players who want to maintain the status quo and have a parochial view. But WWF continues to advocate for change in this space.
‘Our approach is that addressing plastic waste and pollution is a global imperative and it is everyone’s problem,’ says De Kock. ‘It is not going to go away by itself, we have reached a point where the Earth simply does not have the capacity to renew itself anymore and this necessitates major interventions. The aim of the South African Plastics Pact is to work together at an organisational and national level to develop the best way forward to manage the plastic waste and pollution problem and be part of the drive toward a circular plastic economy that will unlock new business and job creation opportunities.’
National targets have been set collectively and adopted by each signatory of the South African Plastics Pact, with the aim to be achieved by 2025. The first target is to identify and tackle problematic and unnecessary plastic items at organisational and national level.
A start to identifying problematic plastic could be looking at what is found on beaches. ‘We are using a methodology called the ‘Dirty Dozen’, which was developed by Dr Peter Ryan, Director of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. He has done extensive research on plastics found in seabirds and other marine biota and has collected data from beach cleanups for over 30 years (www.thebeachcoop.org). The list includes bottle tops, straws, chip packets, sweet wrappers, plastic carrier bags and cigarette butts, among others. Another example of a problematic plastic is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It is effectively used for irrigation/water pipes. But when used in packaging such as clingwrap, bottles and certain labels, it contaminates the recycling stream.
Other targets include:
- Percentage of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. All the countries that are part of the Plastics Pact network, with the exception of Malaysia, have committed to a 100% target for this, excluding compostable. Malaysia is still developing its targets.
- Percentage of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted (national and all stakeholders). This ranges from Chile (33%) to the UK (70%).
- Percentage average recycled content across all packing. This ranges from Chile (25%) to the UK and France (30%).
For example, Chile secured government funding to implement the Chilean Plastics Pact and the implementing agent is a government organisation. While the South African Plastics Pact has not yet received any government funding, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries is a supporting member and has a representative on the steering committee.
This year the steering committee of the SA Plastics Pact will appoint a neutral organisation with no vested interest in the plastics industry to serve as a secretariat that will take the Plastics Pact forward for the next five years.
The Circular Plastics Economy Programme is working in three tiers, namely:
- Business model innovation, which includes the SA Plastics Pact and supporting Extended Producer Responsibility.
- Global Plastics Policy. ‘We are working with policy makers on the continent and at a global level and are calling for a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution to address plastic pollution,’ says De Kock.
- Consumer awareness. ‘We are setting up a communications strategy called #ourplasticourproblem to encourage collective responsibility for the plastics problem, with the goal of achieving a significant attitude change and consumption reduction’.
‘At WWF we see how dire the state of our natural environment is. In my capacity as an engineer I have chosen to work in conservation for this reason. I want to make a contribution to sustainable material production and consumption, and to play my part in trying to create more awareness and change how we live because our planet is at a moment of critical environmental crisis,’ says De Kock.
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