19 – 20 March, 2024 – JHB, South Africa

“Society’s relationship with plastics is changing” –  But more needs to be done

 By Sinazo Mkoko 


Concerns about a mounting plastic crisis across the globe have been loudly raised and private and public organisations continue to seek solutions to deal with this ongoing environmental threat.


From 28 November to 2 December 2022, historic negotiations to end global plastic pollution took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

According to the United Nations, an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, will be developed by the private sector and civil society with hopes to finalise it by 2024. 

Known as INC-1, the first session of this Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), came nine months after representatives from 175 countries endorsed a landmark resolution on plastic pollution at the United Nations Environment Assembly. Countries tasked the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) with convening and managing the INC process, the UN says. 

The meeting which attracted over 2 500 in-person and virtual delegates from 147 countries set the foundation to shape the global instrument to end plastic pollution, with many governments, according to the UN, confirming their desire to have an instrument that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics, protecting human health and the environment, with special attention paid to the unique circumstances of those countries most in need.

Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, said at the opening: “We must eliminate and substitute problematic and unnecessary plastic items and ensure that plastic products are designed to be reusable or recyclable. Important that we find our way towards an ambitious multilateral instrument that ensures plastic products are circulated in practice, not just in theory.”

Plastics SA – South Africa’s umbrella body representing all sectors of the country’s Plastics Industry playing an active role in the growth and development of the SA industry and striving to address plastics-related issues, was part of the organisations that attended the INC-1. 

Plastics SA’s Sustainability Director, Douw Steyn, represented the South African plastics industry in these negotiations and stated that the meeting was a mix of high and low moments. “It was a huge privilege to join representatives of the global plastic industry such as the World Plastics Council, Plastics Europe, the European Chemical Industry Council), American Chemistry Council as well as environmentalists, scientists, waste pickers, tribal leaders; governments and others affected by pollution in these talks. Twenty-three bilateral meetings with governments and key stakeholders took place during (sic) five days, and it was interesting to see how globally we are all grappling with the same issues,” he said. 

He added that despite the fact that participants were united around the shared goal and vision of how to effectively and responsibly deal with waste, factions also quickly came into focus and as a result, “the first round of negotiations ended on a split on whether to limit plastic production, phase out types of plastics and harmonise global rules.”

Other common themes and desired actions that emerged from the INC-1 meeting include:

  • Scaling up a circular economy for plastics, where used plastics are captured and remade into new plastics.
  • Designing products for circularity
  • Enabling partnerships between the private sector and governments to unlock financing to improve waste management, which serves as the foundation of a circular economy
  • Enhancing transparency on chemical additives

A heap of plastic with the ocean in the background

The Human Impact 

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, the amount of plastic waste produced by humans globally is approximately 460 million metric tonnes of plastic a year, and without urgent action, this is expected to triple by 2060 with around half ending up in landfill and less than a fifth recycled. 

OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann stated that the report proposes tangible policies that can be implemented along the lifecycle of plastics that could “significantly curb and even eliminate – plastic leakage into the environment.”

“If we want a world that is free of plastic pollution, in line with the ambitions of the United Nations Environment Assembly, we will need to take much more stringent and globally co-ordinated action,” Cormann said. 

Another study done by UNEP revealed that over 14 million metric tonnes of plastic enter and damage aquatic ecosystems annually, and “greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics are expected to account for 15% of the total emissions allowable by 2050 if humanity is to limit global warming to 1.5°C.” 

Executive Secretary of the INC Secretariat on Plastic Pollution, Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, says there’s a need for rapid, ambitious and meaningful global action to curb plastic pollution.  “At INC-1, we can lay the groundwork needed to implement a life-cycle approach to plastic pollution, which would significantly contribute to ending the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.”


Plastics SA report 

In efforts to tackle plastic pollution, countries across the globe have taken recycling as one of the main solutions to deal with the challenge. In its latest industrial production, recycling statistics, Plastics SA stated that South Africa recycled 344,527 tons of plastics during 2021 – representing a 10% increase over previous years. 

Plastics SA Executive Director, Anton Hanekom, said while they welcome this growth, more needs to be done to show support to the local recyclers and take the industry to greater heights. “In order for recycling to be effective, certain principles must be in place: products must be designed for recycling; the necessary systems must be in place to collect recyclable waste from the solid waste stream as early as possible; specifications must be in place for incoming recyclable waste in the sense that standards must be developed and adhered to for the recycling processes and subsequent recyclate, and environmental claims must be substantiated. While plastics collection and recycling have improved slightly, we are still not back to pre-Covid year levels recorded in 2019,” he said. 

He added that recyclers, like the rest of the country’s manufacturing sector, were negatively impacted by economic challenges caused by load shedding and rising transportation and energy costs.

The report also showed that the country’s unemployment rate reached a new high of 35.3% in the fourth quarter of 2021, with more than 50 000 jobs lost at the time. According to the report, the manufacturing and construction industries were particularly affected the most and unfortunately, the plastics industry did not escape this trend.

“Although our calculations show that approximately 57 400 informal jobs (e.g., waste pickers and employees of smaller entrepreneurial collectors) were retained in the collection industry this year, formal employment in plastics recycling slipped by 11% to 5 533 formal jobs. Females account for 23% of the workforce and are preferred for more detailed jobs such as waste sorting. The majority of the functions, however, require physically stronger male workers due to the physical nature of their work. A small number of contract workers (4% of the total) are hired on an as-needed basis to sort incoming recyclable waste during peak periods. This figure has dropped yet again as businesses reduce the number of jobs and instead buy sorted, cleaner waste to cut operational costs,” Anton reported.

Person carrying bags of plastic along a sidewalk

Plastics SA has made it clear that the plastics industry, government, and society all want to reduce plastic waste and leave the environment in a better state for future generations. “Domestic waste management has entered the public consciousness, and many industries and consumers share a desire to reduce waste and avoid waste going to landfill, leaking into the environment, or being shipped offshore.

They went on to say that the plastics industry is working hard to ensure that plastics remain sustainable and have a positive impact on people and the environment. 

“We are doing this by striving to transform the traditional linear economy – in which plastics are typically disposed of at the end of their service life, into a plastic circular economy where plastics remain in circulation for longer periods of time and are reused and recycled at the end of their life span.

“Considering the greater context of global events and local developments affecting the industry, we believe the 2021 results are satisfactory and in line with our expectations. We are aware of our shortcomings and where additional work is required. However, just as birds sing after a storm, we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to every company, individual employee, partner, and supplier who assisted us in weathering a very difficult and tumultuous period in our history. As an industry, we will continue to work harder, embrace innovation, and aim higher in order to meet our own and society’s expectations,”  Hanekom concluded. 


Local companies getting involved

To celebrate Marine Month in October, a retailer in South Africa joined hands with local recyclers and became the first South African retailer to remove single-use plastic bags from all its food markets. The company said this is key to realising its vision for a zero-packaging waste-to-landfill which includes the phasing out of unnecessary single-use plastics and for all their packaging to be reusable and/or recyclable.  

Since announcing this vision, the retailer has also removed single-use plastic straws, utensils, lollipop sticks and cotton bud stems as well as made significant packaging improvements.

In a statement, Woolworths Foods Chief Technology and Sustainability Officer, Latiefa Behardien, said they are deeply committed to their zero-packaging waste-to-landfill vision and delighted to have reached this target. She said the beginning of this journey, they have prevented more than 120 million* single-use plastic shopping bags from entering overburdened waste streams and the environment. 

“A critical component for the rollout to over 400 food markets was to ensure that our customers had a cost-efficient, durable reusable bag option that was also made locally. We partnered with a local black-owned supplier and over the last few years have created a sustainable business that in turn created much-needed jobs in a tough economic environment. In 2019 they started with 118 employees which has grown over the last three years to 302 employees,” said Behardien. 

This move was hailed by the industry with some stating that the retailer was taking a task to educate their consumers about adopting more reuse actions in their daily lives and supporting local enterprises. 


Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Pathways Report 

In November 2022, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) released the Pathways Report which outlines the process of using the Pathways tool in the South African context. The report shows that South Africa, like most countries, is faced with growing plastic consumption and disposal, and with it, the leakage of plastic into the terrestrial and aquatic environment.

“Currently, approximately 37% of households in South Africa do not have weekly waste collection services, leaving 29% of all household waste uncollected, which is often disposed of improperly. Furthermore, the waste that is collected is sent to landfill, but many municipal landfill sites do not function effectively in terms of waste treatment and containment (non-compliant landfills),” the report said. 

The report further stated that the modelling for South Africa shows that there is no single solution to address the plastic pollution problem.

Two people collecting plastic on the beach

According to the report, There are four main strategies to address plastic pollution; namely –

Reduce Demand by reducing plastic consumption and substituting plastics with alternatives.

A reduction in plastic consumption involves design for re-use, the elimination of problematic and unnecessary plastics, and the introduction of new delivery models that avoid or reduce the need for packaging (examples include refill services, shifting products to services, e-commerce, and dispensers). Substituting plastics with alternatives involves switching from

plastics to alternatives such as paper, coated paper, and compostable bio-based materials; but with careful consideration to maintain functionality requirements and to ensure that these alternatives do not incur additional environmental impacts.

Increase collection through improvements in waste collection services. Currently, not all South African households have weekly waste collection services, and a large proportion of waste is disposed to open dumps, which are frequently burnt (an informal waste management practice aimed at reducing waste volume). Improving waste collection can make plastics more readily available and amenable for recycling while reducing the potential for plastic pollution.

Increase recycling of plastic by diverting plastic waste away from disposal to recycling. Recycling plastic reduces the need for virgin polymers in the production of new plastic products. An increase in the collection and sorting of plastics will be required to make plastic material available for recycling, and five-year collection and recycling targets have been mandated by the recent Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations (R1187 of 5 November 20204 ).

Improve disposal by improving waste management infrastructure and practices. Currently, landfill is the predominant waste management solution in South Africa, and there is negligible dedicated waste thermal treatment (without energy recovery). However, not all municipal landfills are properly managed or compliant with legislation, and many do not effectively contain plastic waste in situ. Improved safe disposal to sanitary landfills that ensure containment will be needed to reduce plastics leaking into the environment.



UN | UNEP | OECD | Life Cycle Initiatives | PEW | Plastics SA | Woolworths | CSIR | Waste Roadmap|

October 6, 2023

Written by Editor

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