What the SA government is doing to hold plastic producers accountable

The environment minister emphasises the urgent action that is needed to address plastic pollution and highlights what her department is doing to contribute to this necessary change.

By Julia Evans

Globally, an estimated 353-million tons of plastic waste are produced each year, only about 10% of which is recycled. Locally, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa, a little over 2.5-million tons of plastic are produced annually. The Department of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) says poor waste management practices mean that as much as half of post-consumer plastic is not properly disposed of and risks leaking into the environment.

At the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) on Plastic Pollution, which took place in Paris in June 2023, 175 nations, including South Africa, reaffirmed their commitment to developing an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, by the end of 2024.

“In my view, such an international legally binding agreement aims to bring about greater accountability, cooperation and innovation between government, industry, extended producer schemes and waste reclaimers to address the plastic pollution problem,” says Minister of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, Barbara Creecy.

Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported that the end of the meeting saw delegates agree to set out a path for the phase between the INC-2 and the INC-3, mandating the preparation of a “zero draft” of the new plastic treaty to be considered at INC-3. Ghana, for the African Group, supported establishing an international legally binding instrument, which is something the South African delegation also sought to do.

“In South Africa, the negotiating process is already bringing about greater agreement collaboration between all stakeholders as they work to identify achievable goals to ensure plastic waste and pollution is effectively addressed,” adds Creecy.

Placing responsibility on the producers

Creecy acknowledges that South Africa has significant waste management challenges, which include “poor landfill practices and sporadic household waste collection as well as unacceptable levels of illegal dumping in many parts of the country”.

She says that South Africa’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for paper and packaging had begun the important work of diverting waste from landfill sites.

The EPR is a policy approach that shifts the responsibility from the consumer to the producer when it comes to waste management. It was established in 2008 and requires producers to develop and submit waste management plans and finance the collection, recycling and disposal of the waste generated by their products.

Jane Barrett from Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, which supports the organising of waste pickers, explains that the EPR gets manufacturers to take responsibility for some of the costs of the disposal and/or recycling of their products and packaging. For example, products like paper and packaging, electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste), lighting and tyres have been identified by South African legislation as having a significant environmental impact and are subject to EPR legislation.

Creecy says that in 2022 more than 1.5-million tons of paper and packing were diverted from landfills through recycling, recovery and treatment.

What government is doing

Creecy has previously acknowledged South Africa’s failing waste management system, which is run by local municipalities, reporting that a third of households still don’t have weekly waste removal.

To support municipalities, Creecy said her department would focus on improving cleanliness in provincial capitals as part of the reinvigorated Presidential Good Green Deeds Programme.

“Here in the Western Cape, we will be focusing on the broader Cape Flats region where many formal and informal settlements have inadequate waste removal and plastic leaches into rivers and eventually into the sea,” says Creecy.

Through the Expanded Public Works Programme, the DFFE would offer work opportunities to 2 000 women, young people and persons with disabilities per province to support the cleaning and greening of provincial capitals by assisting in litter picking in prioritised streets as well as clearing illegal dumps, planting trees and promoting recycling services.

“Their efforts are complemented by the 32 waste enterprises that have been supported to increase recycling of construction and demolition waste, plastic, packaging and other waste streams,” says Creecy.

The minister concludes that through her department’s Recycling Enterprise Support Programme, 56 startups, emerging SMMEs and co-operatives operating in the waste sector had been supported in the past six years, with the department providing more than R300-million in financial support, creating 1 558 jobs and diverting more than 200 000 tons of waste from landfills.

Article courtesy The Conversation

Government to tackle plastic pollution with labour, plastic sector

While government has made progress in tackling plastic pollution, it has committed to address the problem of plastic pollution in consultation with the plastic industry and organised labour as the sector sustains approximately 60 000 jobs.

Over the past two years, five registered extended producer schemes that support plastic waste collection and recycling have been registered in the country, resulting in the removal of 368 600 tons of plastic waste from the environment.

“It has supported between 60 000 and 90 000 waste reclaimers and it has promoted hundreds of public clean-up and public education initiatives,” Creecy says.

The minister was addressing the National Stakeholder Consultation Session on the INC-3 on the development of the international legally binding instrument on curbing plastic pollution taking place in Nairobi, Kenya.

“South Africa has a significant plastics industry that sustains approximately 60 000 formal jobs. Because of this, we will ensure that as we approach the problem of plastic pollution and the measures necessary, we work in consultation with the plastics industry and organised labour.

“In the retail and fast-food space many outlets have substituted single-use plastics with biodegradable products. We now have regulatory requirements for recyclate content in plastic and black bags,” the minister says.

The minister says the following principles must guide negotiations with the plastic sector:

    • All decisions must be based on the best available science and what this science is telling us about the impact of certain products on the environment.
    • There needs to be open and transparent sharing of information about the chemicals used in plastic production, given the various applications of plastics in food contact applications.
    • The new international legally binding instrument will result in the need for new regulatory controls on a domestic level.
    • Should the international instrument lead to obligatory measures to curb plastic pollution, there will be a need for these measures to be supported by equally ambitious means of implementation. Developing countries will argue for a financial mechanism that would ensure predictable and adequate financial resources to assist in curbing plastic pollution.

“On the domestic front we understand that this requires a holistic approach that understands the full life cycle of plastic manufacture, use and disposal in the context of the National Waste Management Strategy 2020,” the minister says.

Accordingly, South Africa has focused on three aspects:

    • Supporting and strengthening municipal waste management services to prevent plastic leaking into the environment.
    • Developing EPR schemes to collect, reuse and recycle plastic waste to promote a circular economy in the plastic industry.
    • Promoting public awareness and clean-up campaigns to remove plastic waste from rivers, wetlands and beaches.