Plastics are part of our everyday lifestyles, and their release into the natural environment has become yet another serious global crisis affecting ecosystems and their related services.
Thus the focus for this year’s World Environmental Day on June 5 and Oceans Day on June 8 is on plastic pollution and encouraging solutions for a healthy ocean.
Although the proposed circular economy policy solutions and business models have a potential to reduce the magnitude of the problem, single-handedly, they will not give the much-desired result of healthy oceans. Recycling initiatives are the low-hanging fruit and do reduce the leakage of most packaging plastic products, such as carrier bags and other recyclable mega and macro plastic products, into the environment, including oceans, water sources and farm lands.
But addressing the plastic pollution crisis in its entirety has to go beyond the carrier-bag narrative. A deliberate effort should be made to outlaw the import, manufacture and use of all forms of other problematic plastics such as single use (nonrecyclable) plastics and microplastics.
South Africa is actively involved in the global fight against environmental pollution and has not been shy to ratify a number of global initiatives supporting environmental sustainability, including those addressing plastic pollution. Commitment to the United Nations Environment Assembly and the UN Environment’s CleanSeas campaign are two of the most recent and notable examples.
Over and above our own National Development Plan, South Africa has also committed to the UN’s sustainable development goals, with SDG 14 aimed at addressing marine pollution of all kinds. Ostensibly, this is a good thing, because all these commitments supposedly complement, build on and echo the calls for urgent action on environmental pollution.
Examples of earlier initiatives for reducing plastic bag consumption in South Africa include recycling and the introduction of the plastic bag levy. Although similar initiatives have worked elsewhere, the results have been underwhelming in South Africa. When a review was done seven years after the plastic bag levy, plastic bag consumption was still high. At about eight billion a year, 96% was sent to landfills after use.
Tackling ocean plastic pollution is a global crisis and requires a global solution almost on a par with the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants or the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Other governments have pressed on with plans to ban single-use plastics products (such as cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers, glitter and sticks for balloons) and the use of microplastics in certain products.
The Water Research Commission recently demonstrated the presence of substantial amounts of micro to nano-sized plastic particles in selected surface, tap and ground water sources in South Africa.
Microplastics in water sources could originate from industrial pellets, microbeads used in personal care products, micro/nanofibres used in clothing items, as well as abrasives from synthetic sand-blasting.
These minute plastic particles end up in our rivers because wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove them. Secondary microplastic fragments are those that are derived from the degradation of larger plastic pieces.
Interpretation of a growing knowledge base of plastic debris in aquatic systems consistently indicates the real and potential risk of microplastics.
Curbing pollution related to these types of plastics demands immediate and aggressive action. This kind of action is provided for under principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992. This section states: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
To date, only a handful of countries have invoked this principle and announced calls to ban single-use plastics and/or microplastics. Among these countries are the United States, Britain, Sweden, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Norway. A European Union call for the ban of single-use plastics is also under way.
In South Africa’s recent Budget policy statement, the department of environmental affairs announced its ambitious plans for curbing plastic pollution. But much of the stimulus behind these plans rests on the assumption that economic growth can be decoupled from environmental degradation, and that poverty eradication and environmental sustainability can be simultaneously achieved.
Plastic recycling in South Africa has been ongoing for several years, with the rate of recycling estimated to be about 41.8%. But the rising plastic pollution problem is a clear symptom that the country has neither achieved the necessary balance for sustainability, nor been able to maintain the momentum from earlier efforts against plastic pollution.
Visible plastic pollution is easily tackled which consumer education to raise awareness. But microplastics require a differentiated approach. Accurate product labelling will be vital, as will the provision of sufficient information for the consumer to make informed choices about purchasing a product. As it is, the consumer is unlikely to know that certain products contain microplastics, such as clothing, face cleansers and toothpaste.
South Africa’s efforts to implement commitments to global initiatives against environmental degradation are an important first step but enabling effective responses in marine water-quality management can contribute to unlocking the economic potential of South Africa’s resources, growing our gross domestic product and creating sustainable jobs, and at the same time ensure that our environment is free from pollution.
Dr Nonhlanhla Kalabaila is research manager of water use and waste management for the Water Research Commission