Each year, millions of people around the world are encouraged to refuse single-use plastics as part of “Plastic Free July”. According to the organisers of this campaign, their aim and vision is to see a world without plastic waste. The global plastics industry say they have been advocating and working towards these same goals for the past 25 years.
“We are the first to recoil at the sight of plastic garbage littering our beaches or roadsides or waving from branches of trees or shrubs. Our message has always been – and will continue to be – that plastics are too valuable to waste. We have been working relentlessly to raise awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution as part of our drive to see a world without plastic waste,” says Anton Hanekom, Executive Director of Plastics SA.
Hanekom stresses that it would be impossible for the 7.5 billion people living on the planet today to live a normal life without plastics – regardless of whether they are conscious of this or not.
“Plastic is an integral part of our modern life style. Strong and versatile, plastic exists because we want convenience at a low price. It keeps our food fresh, ensures food safety, gives us tamper proof medications and the list continues. If we were to remove it from our lives, we would have to get rid of almost everything we wear, live in, or work with. The challenge lies in preventing plastic from ending up in the environment after it has been used, and making sure that it is properly discarded so that it can be recycled into a multitude of different new products”, he says.
The plastics industry body does not believe that fighting for the survival of plastics and fighting for the protection of the environment is necessarily at odds with each other. In fact, they believe that both can flourish and support each other without putting the jobs of more than 60 000 South Africans employed by the plastics industry at risk, posing a danger to marine life or disfiguring our natural environment.
“During 2018, South Africa converted more than 1,8 million tons of polymer into plastic products. During the same year, recycled plastic waste tonnages increased by 12.2% – giving South Africa a collection rate of 46.3% and making us a world leader in mechanical recycling. More should be done to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment. We could start by improving waste infrastructure so that more waste is recovered and prevented from entering the environment,” Hanekom says.
Considering the large variety of clamshells, tubs, bowls and trays, that retailers and restaurants sell their food, fruit and vegetables in, the industry is urging consumers and policymakers to take cognisance of the fact that most of these products are made of sturdy, excellent quality plastics that can be used repeatedly if collected and recycled.
The South African regulated 24-micron retail plastic bag is not considered a single-use plastic product by Sustento (consultants to the Department of Environmental, Fisheries and Forestry), as the thickness of these plastic bags in most countries ranges between 12 and 17 microns which classifies them as ‘single-use’. Owing to the thickness of the locally manufactured bags, they are repurposed and reused several times in most households for primary (e.g. shopping) and secondary uses (e.g. to store food or household items, carry picnic lunches or clean-up after Fluffy).
“To date, the fillers in plastic carrier bags have been removed, producing fully recyclable plastic bags. In some cases 100 % certified recycled plastic material is used, making them more recyclable and creating a win-win situation for the environment,” Hanekom explains.
Despite the harsh criticism it has had to endure over recent years, plastic continues to expand its applications in terms of variety and volume – and researchers are starting to change their anti-plastic messages. Almost weekly, new research challenges the benefits of banning plastics. A recent study published by the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit found that biodegradable plastics rarely break down fully in marine environments, and warned that labeling them as such could even encourage people to take littering less seriously.
Similarly, a study by Denmark’s ministry of environment and food, found that classic plastic shopping bags have a minimal environmental impact compared to that of a conventional cotton bag. Cotton bags have to be re-used 7,100 times to have the same cumulative environmental impact as using classic plastic bags which are easy to produce, require very little energy and produce very little carbon dioxide emissions.
“As waste collection improves, we see improved recovery models and the development of a circular economy. The solution lies in addressing our wasteful model of consumption by changing negligent human behaviour and embracing recycling. All it takes is a little willpower from everybody concerned,” Hanekom concludes.