The two sides of the plastics argument: the facts and the falsehood

December 15, 2021

There have been a number of articles published in local media recently, more specifically in the Daily Maverick newspaper, in which both the South African plastics industry and the Government have come under attack. Whilst remaining silent and choosing not to retaliate to statements in the media might be the most appropriate course of action, there comes a time when we find it necessary to stand up to defend the truth, set the record straight and refute claims that are defamatory, bias and damaging to an industry that strives to make a valuable contribution to the economy, the country, and the environment.

In our opinion, many of the statements published were incorrect, emotive and without the proper context. It must also be stressed that Plastics SA was never approached by the journalist for comments or to verify the facts. Instead, the publication chose to interview and quote anti-plastics environmentalists in its criticism of the Government for allegedly being “held captive” by plastics industry and for failing to ban plastics in South Africa.

These inaccuracies have not gone unnoticed by those interested in the management of plastic waste. For example, a LinkedIn post published recently by Rob van Hille, Principal Consultant at The Moss Group recently read:

“While it is good that the Daily Maverick is publishing articles highlighting the challenges around plastic, society and the environment, the recent articles are littered with factual inaccuracies and numbers that make no sense.

Two articles over the last 10 days have claimed that South Africa generates 2,370 tonnes of plastic waste per year. The fact that the figure was repeated… points to the fact that the initial figure was not a typographical error. A medium sized mechanical recycler processes several times more plastic than this figure annually. Recent articles have also incorrectly stated that Plastics SA is a producer responsibility organisation…

I realise that many of these articles are written by freelance contributors, but there should be some

editorial oversight to ensure facts are accurately reported, particularly if these contributors are featured regularly.”

As a country that has recently recorded the highest unemployment rate in the world (34.4%) with 7.8 million citizens currently jobless, one would expect that any effort to create a public-private partnership that is focussed on sustaining and creating jobs would be welcomed, applauded, and supported. It therefore defies belief that the publication would support the view that Government should close down an industry that provides employment to roughly 60 000 people and contributed R68 billion (2.3 %) directly to GDP and 20 % to the Manufacturing GDP in 2020. During the same year, R2.1 billion was injected into the informal sector through the purchasing of recyclable plastic waste.

South Africa compares favourably with the best in the world when it comes to mechanical recycling and currently sits at a recycling rate of around 22%. Although there are countries around the world that are reporting higher recycling figures, it is important to bear in mind that we do not have the same recycling options available elsewhere in the world, i.e., incineration, energy from waste, commercial composting facilities or advanced recycling such as chemical recycling.

We also do not have effective separation-at-source waste management systems in place. In its recent 2019 report, Stats SA indicated that 39 % of the South African population does not have any regular waste management services provided to them. As a result, the largest quantity of recyclables (64%) in our country come from landfill and other post-consumer sources where they become dirty, contaminated, and inferior in quality. Recyclers have to invest heavily in wash plants, electricity and additional labour to get the available material at a standard that meets local requirements.

Although it is true that there is ample amount of plastic waste available within our own borders, it is not necessary the right type, quality or volume that can be used by recyclers to produce a consistent supply of the type or grade that is required. These recyclers need to keep their businesses going, workers employed and the industry operational. They are therefore left with no other option but to import waste from our neighbouring SADC countries if local supply runs short.

It is critical to understand the greater context and strict conditions under which plastic waste imports are allowed into the country:

  • There is no dumping of plastic waste taking place in South Africa.
  • Our focus is to prevent plastics from ending up in the environment and that cannot be done by allowing uncontrolled dumping to take place. To this end, South Africa imports limited volumes of waste under strict import application requirements within the Basel Convention guidelines, guaranteed take-off agreements, etc.
  • We import only commodity plastics from neighbouring SADC countries is where we have a shortage between recycling capacity and adequate supply available in our own country. It is primarily our own packaging that is being returned.
  • Only specialised materials are imported from outside SADC where there is not any adequate supply available in our own country or SADC, e.g., PU foam used in the manufacturing of the upper layer of a mattress.
  • All applications for plastic waste imports need to satisfy three different parties before an import permit is issued, namely the plastics industry, DFFE and finally ITAC who must give the final approval and issue the import permit.
  • The issuing of an import permit does not mean that all the waste material applied for will be imported.

We are confident that plastic waste imports will eventually be completely phased out as South Africa’s EPR schemes are being developed. The Producer Responsibility Organisations (PRO’s) will implement improved collection and recycling mechanisms, focus on design for recyclability, reduce unnecessary packaging through light weighting, promote the use of recycled content in new products and develop new end-markets for recycled plastics.

Various independent, scientific studies conducted both locally and around the world have proven time and again that plastics are the most suitable and fit-for-purpose packaging material with also the smallest environmental footprint – provided that it is recycled. Plastics SA and its various members work hard to help clean the environment, remove litter from rivers, streams, and other inland water sources to prevent it from ending up in the environment. We are relentless in our efforts to educate the public and end-market consumers about the responsible disposal of plastics and the

importance of recycling. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet that can solve the issue of plastic waste overnight. It requires everybody to collaborate and to develop the required infrastructure to get plastic out of the waste stream and to develop a “nothing wasted” mindset that is crucial to South Africa’s sustainability.

I trust this will help to provide clarity and context to the issue and will help to provide answers to the many questions that have recently been raised about the importing of plastic waste to South Africa. Please feel free to reach out to myself or any one of the Plastics SA team members should you have any additional queries in this regard.

Yours sincerely,

Anton Hanekom
Executive Director: Plastics SA

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Author: Anton Hanekom - Plastics SA
Title: The Two sides of the Plastics argument: the facts and the falsehoods
Published: 15 December 2021

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