Stamp out plastics and create jobs in the process

Photo Credit: Sam Hobson

A groundbreaking study has found that eliminating certain plastics from the country will boost rather than blight the economy. This is a feather in the cap of South Africa while a global treaty is underway to stem the tide of plastic pollution which starts from the moment plastic is manufactured and carries on for decades after it’s been used.

Photo Credit: Jay Caboz

A shopper uses fabric carrier bags for groceries, instead of plastic ones which are hazardous to the environment and often only used once.
Photo Credit: Jay Caboz

What do plastics, jobs and climate have to do with one another?

You might be aware that these are interlinked but would be hard-pressed to say why or how.

To put us all in the picture with a cheat sheet to help spread the word, I spoke to Lorren de Kock, senior manager of WWF’s Circular Economy portfolio. Her team works on addressing the issue of wasteful material and product systems that prize profit and convenience above sustainability. They consider the entire value chain of a material or product from upstream design to the end of life.

Lorren explained why a global treaty is underway and what impact it might have on South Africa if certain plastic products and polymers are stamped out. We are in fact one of the first countries to delve into what the treaty might mean for our economy, and the findings are encouraging.

Having heard her answers, I think that one day we’ll look back on the treaty and ask ourselves why it took so long for something so necessary.

Is it true that eliminating certain single-use plastics from our economy would lead to a great loss of jobs?

South Africa must balance environmental priorities with the immediate crisis of unemployment. Some say banning and phasing out certain single-use plastics will lead to substantial job losses, but local research shows the exact opposite.

A 2023 study commissioned by WWF looked at what would happen to the South African economy if we banned or phased out certain high-risk, single-use plastics. The study was commissioned because an international treaty is being negotiated to end plastic pollution which is considering a control measure of global bans and phase outs of ‘high-risk’ plastic products, polymers and chemicals. The fourth out of five planned negotiation sessions was recently concluded in Ottawa, Canada and it is hoped the ambitious legally binding global rules will be finalised by end of 2024.

What do we mean by high-risk and single use?

High-risk plastics are those most likely to be leaked directly or indirectly into the natural environment where they have a very negative impact on water quality, aquatic biodiversity and human health. Some single -use plastic products fall under this ‘high risk’ category, meaning they are both harmful and unnecessary, and as the name suggests: used only once and then discarded. Many of these items are small formats like sachets or lollipop sticks or are made from thin plastic which is easily leaked into the environment and not collected because it cannot be recycled.

Photo Credit: Jay Caboz

Plastic breaks down and leaks into the environment, negatively affecting all ecosystems
Photo Credit: Jay Caboz

What’s the bigger issue?

Plastic production is a major contributor to climate change, while plastic pollution is causing irreparable harm to the environment and is damaging ecosystems. Without a global plastics treaty that tackles the entire value chain – including better product design, reducing production of virgin plastic from fossil fuels, improved recycling and waste management – plastic will continue its path of destruction. Once finalised, the global treaty will determine what products would be curtailed through a list of bans and phase-outs, but implementation would be managed at national level.

What is the connection between plastic, global warming and pollution?

The production, conversion and waste management of plastics generate about 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are the main driver of global warming and thus climate change. Also, plastic stays in the environment for hundreds of years and breaks down into fragments and microplastics. These are ingested by animals, cause soil pollution, and leak into our drinking water and food sources. Plastic products also ruin our beautiful landscapes when they become litter.

So which products are we talking about?

For the South African study, 10 items were identified either for bans or phase-outs. The plastic products chosen for bans are regarded as unnecessary and avoidable; if alternatives are needed, they are already available. For the phase-out items, economically and technologically feasible alternatives are not readily available, so time is needed for further research and development. None of the 10 plastic items are collected for recycling by informal reclaimers or waste pickers, so the bans and phase-outs will not directly affect their livelihoods.

Photo Credit: Jay Caboz

Nearly 9 out of 10 South Africans back a global ban on single-use plastic products to stop plastic pollution.
Photo Credit: Jay Caboz

So how could bans and phase-outs change South Africa’s future by 2030?

Contrary to popular belief, these bans and phase-outs will boost the South African economy. How?

  1. A bans scenario will see 22 000 additional jobs for females by 2030.
  2. For males, it is 24 000.
  3. Without bans and phase-outs, total employment will go up by 3% whereas bans will see 4% employment growth and phase-outs 5%.
  4. In a phase-out scenario, 159 000 jobs for females are on the horizon.
  5. For males it is 151 000.
  6. Wage increases hit 8% with no action yet bans would see a 10% increase.

Informal employment will go up by 22% with no action, but up to 24% with bans and phase-out

But how would such bans and phase-outs boost the economy?

Firstly, the demand for alternative environmentally friendly products and business models would boost the economy by creating the need for innovation around delivery of products and using products differently. This would lead to a proliferation of smaller business and service-based “refill and reuse” models which ultimately means a rise in start-ups and employment.

Secondly, while a few of the problematic products like barrier bags and plastic-stemmed ear buds are produced locally, the vast majority are imported. By banning or phasing them out, local innovation for alternatives would be stimulated.

What’s the economic bottom line?

A variety of factors were included to calculate how much it would cost the country if we do not curb high-risk, single-use plastic products. These included, among others, the cost of waste management, the cost of clean-ups, the cost of collecting, sorting, recycling and disposing, and the cost of not curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, the cost to society of persisting with a business-as-usual approach to plastic is R47,8 billion.

South Africa simply can’t afford that.

Neither can nature.

Photo Credit: Sam Hobson