Each year in July, people across the globe take part in “Plastic Free July” – an international movement that aims to reduce the amount of plastic waste in our environment by encouraging fellow citizens to make the shift towards long-term, environmentally friendly habits.
Although skeptics might find it hard to believe, the plastics industry in South Africa and their partners around the world support these objectives. Whilst they don’t endorse the call for people to go “plastic free”, they do agree with the urgent appeal to reduce the global waste crisis.
It is important to highlight, however, that the waste clogging our rivers, streams and oceans is not solely caused by plastics. Because plastics is a lightweight material, it floats and is therefore often the most visible pollutant.
This has caused the plastics industry to have a big target on its back. To imagine that the solution is as easy as simply banning the use of plastics, is an uninformed, irrational argument that can be perilous to the environment that we are trying to protect.
It is a fact that our modern lives would be virtually impossible without the use of plastics. Almost every sector or industry relies on plastics to make life easier, safer and more convenient. Plastics give us reliable performance at an affordable price. Think about the many applications of plastics in the healthcare environment, automotive industry, technology, building and construction and mining.
More and more of the plastics used in these sectors are either recyclable, or are being manufactured with a percentage of recycled plastic contents as product designers and developers are grasping the tremendous benefits and savings afforded to them by supporting the circular economy.
Over the past few years, numerous independent scientific studies been conducted to compare the environmental footprint of plastics versus other packaging materials, e.g. glass, paper or biodegradable packaging. Time and again, these life cycle analyses have proven that plastics require less energy, reduce waste and have lower carbon emissions. Most recently, the CSIR released their findings that confirmed that reusable, plastic shopping bags are the best option for South Africa.
After comparing 21 environmental and socio-economic indicators, including water use, land use, global warming, the impacts of pollution, impact on employment and the affordability for consumers, they confirmed that locally produced plastic shopping bags have the lowest environmental footprint compared to carrier bags made from alternative materials, or even biodegradable bags – provided that they are re-used.
Earlier, Danish researchers found that cotton bags need to be re-used 7,100 times to have the same cumulative environmental impact as using classic plastic bags. For every seven trucks needed to deliver paper shopping bags, for example, only one truck is needed to deliver the same number of plastic shopping bags – thereby further helping to reduce the environmental footprint and the amount of waste generated.
It should therefore be abundantly clear that the real issue that needs to be addressed is not the use of plastics, but human behaviour. Every piece of carelessly discarded litter has the potential of ending up in the environment or polluting our oceans. Municipalities that fail to put an effective waste management system in place, not only fail their citizens, but jeopardize the health of our planet as they are inviting a waste crisis.
Over the past 25 years, their position has never changed: Plastics don’t litter – people do! Every piece of plastic has value and has the potential to be repurposed and recycled into something new.
Whilst a battle rages on around the issue of litter in the environment, Plastics SA and its members will continue to make a tangible difference through various clean-up operations such as coordinating South Africa’s participation in the International Coastal Clean-Up, Operation Clean-Sweep, river catchment projects and ongoing education campaigns around the country.