Credit Dyer Island Conservation Trust

‘We need interventions from industry and government at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, starting from its production to end of life, in order to accelerate the transition to a circular plastics economy and embed accountability among all stakeholders.’

These are the words of WWF’s Circular Plastics Economy Programme Manager, Lorren de Kock, an industrial engineer with a master’s degree in environmental and process systems engineering.

The magnitude of the plastic problem is illustrated in the calculation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature ─ that South Africa alone is responsible for an estimated 107 000 tons of plastic in our oceans each year. This includes tyres, clothing, e-waste, packaging and disposable nappies. Much of it either goes to landfills and open dumps or leaks into our rivers and oceans.

The WWF Circular Plastics Economy Programme has projects in the business, policy and cities space to address the multifaceted and complex nature of the plastic pollution problem in Africa. The programme is funded by a range of donors, including the WWF Nedbank Green Trust.

At the global and regional policy level we have projects aiming to capacite WWF offices in Africa to explore solutions to address the plastics pollution problem in the local context, advocating for the development and implementation of policy mechanisms at a national level through engagement with governments in Africa. Most importantly, it is calling on African governments to support and work towards a global, legally binding agreement on plastic pollution at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) 5.2 early this year.

‘We are working at a regional level to advocate for policy to tackle plastic pollution given that plastic production, consumption and, ultimately, leakage is growing along with the import of plastic waste from developed countries,’ says De Kock. Due to the transboundary nature of plastic pollution, which travels from land via water courses to the ocean, WWF is calling on all governments to support the establishment of a negotiating mandate for a legally binding global treaty on marine plastic pollution at UNEA 5.2.

‘WWF is urging all UN member states to take action at all stages of the plastic lifecycle, as only systemic solutions and interventions will reduce and eventually stop the leakage of plastic pollution into the oceans by 2030,’ says De Kock.

‘We are engaging with national government to support the establishment of a negotiating mandate and endorse the Peru-Rwanda draft resolution that will start the formal negotiation process of the treaty.’

At a national policy level, she explains we need to implement measures that extend responsibility for plastic pollution all the way up the value chain, from the plastic resin producers and converters to brand owners and retailers, consumers, waste management organisations and government. The aim is to create a circular economy for plastic (including the reduction of virgin plastic production, re-use of plastic products in the system, eliminating unnecessary and problematic plastics, and recycling plastic.

In 2021, two key pieces of legislation were gazetted in the South African policy space. The first specifies that all plastic bags (including those imported) must contain at least 50% post-consumer recycled plastic from the beginning of 2022, and will need to have 100% post-consumer recycled plastic from January 2027.

The second requires companies that place plastic packaging, electronics, glass bottles, and cardboard, among other goods on the market in South Africa, to be financially and/or operationally responsibility for all end-of-life activities of the packaging and products they place on the market. The new ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR) legislation also includes targets that require increasing the amount of recycled material in the products and increasing the overall volumes of collection and recycling of these products going forward.

in 2020, the Circular Plastics Economy Programme received additional funding from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to engage with stakeholders in the national plastic value chain to provide policy recommendations for EPR on plastic packaging.

‘The South African government has now promulgated EPR regulations whereby plastic producers, brand owners, retailers, importers and manufacturers have to pay an EPR fee per ton of plastic they place on the market, and these funds go into managing plastic waste,’ says De Kock.

‘The EPR process is currently managed by the company itself or by a producer responsibility organisation (PRO) – where several producers come together and form a PRO. There are collection and recycling targets for every single packaging format. November 2022 will see the first reporting by EPR schemes and this will have to be independently audited. It is a long time coming, but it is very important that government has passed this regulation to drive accountability.’

At the business level, the South African Plastics Pact, launched on 30 January 2020, is making good headway with industry and government. Funding for the initial development of the pact was partly provided by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. Since the launch the secretariat for the SA Plastics Pact is GreenCape, with a focus on rethinking and redesigning plastic packaging and product delivery models.

‘Eighty percent of the environmental impacts of plastic packaging, or any packaging for that matter, can be addressed at the design stage,’ says De Kock.

Although voluntary at this stage, the South African Plastics Pact formalises collective national targets for the value chain through its 20+ members, including Pick n Pay, Clicks, Woolworths, Spar, Unilever, Tiger Brands and Spur Holdings.  WWF is a supporting member, along with other non-governmental organisations, industry bodies and government.

‘We want to get away from continuously extracting fossil fuels to make more virgin plastics, which is simply creating more waste,’ says De Kock, who explains that plastic products (especially packaging) need to be designed to be reused and also economically and technically recycled at the end of life, even after a single use. Once recycled it can be used as a raw material in other products. By adopting more reuse models and using increasing amounts of recycled plastic in products, we will reduce our dependence on virgin plastic and create a circular material flow in the economy where plastic does not become waste and leak into the environment.

‘Moving forward at the business or industry level, we plan to engage with financial institutions to identify the risks in the plastics value chain and to guide more responsible investment,’ says De Kock.

‘Our focus is also going to be on cities and behaviour change across the value chain. For the cities work, we will be engaging with the various coastal municipalities to find solutions to reduce the leakage of plastics into the environment. Lessons learnt through pilot projects and stakeholder engagement can be shared with other cities through communities of practice.

‘We also hope to work with government, academia and behaviour change experts to find solutions to the massive problem of disposable nappy waste. Reusable nappies are part of the solution but we also need to find solutions to vastly improve the management of disposable nappies after use, as they are literally clogging our river systems,’ says De Kock.