ForeignSpecial Report

The road to ending plastic waste in SA

The South African Initiative to End Plastic Waste has already made important progress in its efforts to find workable solutions that will end plastic from polluting the environment.

According to Plastics SA’s executive director, Anton Hanekom, this Initiative was formed earlier this year and enjoys the support and active participation of the entire packaging value chain – including the chemicals sector, polymer and/or raw material producers, importers, packaging converters, retailers, brand owners, fast food franchises, producer responsibility organisations and many other stakeholders.

Education and awareness

Coordinated by the Consumer Goods Council (CGC) of South Africa as secretariat, four working groups were formed to look inter alia at: the role of Technology, Innovation & Design; Infrastructure; Bioplastics & Alternatives; and Education & Awareness in combatting litter.

‘These working groups are made up industry leaders representing the entire value chain, as well as government representatives of the Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries; Department of Trade & Industry and the UN Environment Programme. They are all working towards specific outcomes and present progress reports  to the greater forum on a bi-monthly basis. It is truly exciting to see how the different sectors are complementing and supporting each other’s efforts to develop scalable solutions that eliminate plastic waste in the environment and that fit the country’s particular environmental, socio-political and economic realities,’ Hanekom says.

Highlights of the work done to date by these working groups include:

  • Improving design for sustainability

The Technology, Innovation & Design working group is focusing on improving the South African plastics industry’s success with design for sustainability, increasing recycled content in products; securing demand for recyclate; generating energy from waste; increasing commercial and home composting facilities, developing end-markets for recycled plastic and developing refuse-derived fuels. This is done by considering the country’s industry waste management plan (PPIWMP), exploring existing networks and drawing on local and international research and technology that is already in place.

  • Improving waste management infrastructure

Improving plastics waste management, recycling infrastructure and developing reverse logistics are only some of the focus areas of the Infrastructure working group. They are looking at the best ways of diverting plastic waste from landfill and the environment by considering the PPIWMP, existing infrastructure, river catchment projects, the recently launched Good Green Deeds campaign as well linking existing local and global networks. Their ultimate objective is to support infrastructure, create blueprint model(s) for implementation, and roll out relevant waste management projects.

‘One possibility that is currently on the table for communities without waste management infrastructure, is the creation of materials recovery hubs. These will be facilities established in central points and which operate within a 150km radius. These hubs will be responsible for accepting and sorting all types of packaging waste, where it will be baled for selling to recyclers (high-value waste) or for processing and converting into furniture or building materials to meet community needs (low-value or non-recyclable waste),” Anton expands. He says that the idea behind these hubs is to work as much as possible with local communities in creating beneficiation enterprises and jobs, determining what products are required for the local community and identifying suitable entrepreneurs to be trained and set up in self-funded, sustainable businesses.

‘This type of blueprint will then be applied to identified crisis areas and will be scalable according to the community’s location,’ Hanekom says.

  • Developing alternative feedstocks

The Bioplastics & Alternatives working group is currently developing a position paper on biodegradable and compostable packaging materials, in which retailers and brand owners are being urged to consider various factors before they introduce such packaging products. One such factor is the importance of using appropriate labels and logo’s to ensure they are easily differentiated from their conventional counterparts.

Explains Hanekom: ‘The introduction of biodegradable and compostable material remains a major concern for the plastics recycling industry as the required infrastructure to separately collect and process these materials (e.g. commercial composting facilities) currently does not exist in South Africa. These alternatives to conventional plastic packaging do not change consumer behaviour when it comes to littering. As a result, we could potentially replace one problem with another as these materials inadvertently end up contaminating the recycling stream.’

  • Improving education and awareness

The Education & Awareness working group’s goals are centred on awareness campaigns with the use of information booklets, pamphlets, websites, mobile apps and clean-up events. They are developing a plan of action that uses existing and new networks in the industry and government in order to improve awareness among schools, communities, consumers, industry and retailers, government and waste management companies. One of their aims is to enhance skills development among entrepreneurs, waste pickers and waste management businesses.

The next steps

A meeting was held recently between representatives of the South African Initiative to End Plastic Waste and Minister of the Environment, Forestry & Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, during which she was briefed on the industry’s progress with these four working groups. The minister requested that two more working groups be formed with specific focus on standards, compliance and the integration of waste pickers into the circular economy.  Moreover, in order to promote further understanding of the issues facing the industry, the she will be hosting a Plastics Colloquium: “Understanding the Plastics Sector and Identifying Policy Measures” on 21 – 22 November 2019 in Johannesburg. During these two days, there will be various plenary sessions, panel discussions and working group discussions to further unpack the practical problems and co-design proposed solutions.

‘An impressive amount of work and research has already been done, but there is still plenty more we as an industry need to do to reach the scale and impact we are hoping to achieve with this project. We are inviting anyone who is interested and involved in the plastics value chain and feel they have some insight to offer, to join one of the initiative’s working groups. The ultimate success of these solutions will depend on ensuring as much industry buy-in and drawing on as much expertise as possible!’ Hanekom concludes.

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