Plastic alternatives just good PR or a real solution?
On July 3, citizens throughout the world celebrated Plastic Bag Free Day, which came hot on the heels of Environment Day and World Oceans Day. On all these days, and throughout the month of Plastic Free July, consumers have been encouraged to #beatplasticspollution and join the challenge to “choose to refuse” single-use plastics.
Calls for action such as these make it clear that consumers around the world are tired of visible litter. They responded on social media platforms with passion, demanding an end to plastic packaging such as carrier bags, drinking straws and plastic cotton ear buds.
Some retailers and brand-owners, recognising an opportunity to gain significant marketing and public relations mileage, were quick to respond by introducing alternatives such as paper bags and piloting a compostable bag made from starches, cellulose, vegetable oils and other combinations as an “environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags” to replace all plastic carrier bags, barrier bags and fruit and vegetable bags.
To the uninformed, this might seem an excellent and practical solution to solve a problem. The reality, unfortunately, is far from the truth. Many of the so-called plastic alternatives that are now flooding the market have not been properly evaluated.
A compostable carrier bag sounds good in theory but further scrutiny reveals that these bags and other biodegradable plastic products will only degrade in a properly managed composting facility and definitely not in a suburban compost heap.
According to the internationally accepted standard for compostability (EN 13432), the packaging must be mixed with organic waste and maintained under test scale composting conditions for 12 weeks. If not kept under ideal conditions, these bags will not biodegrade and are most likely to end up in one of the country’s landfills (also not ideal composting environments) or worse — in the recycling stream where it will contaminate the entire stream and render more material unrecyclable.
South Africa has a robust and well-developed plastics recycling industry, which has provided jobs to more than 52 000 people who collect waste that is mechanically recycled into new raw materials (more than 313 700 tonnes of plastic material in 2017 alone).
Thanks to their efforts and the South Africans committed to recycling, 214 220 tonnes of carbon dioxide and landfill space equivalent to 714 Olympic-sized swimming pools were saved in one year. This is the equivalent weight of 560 Airbus A380 aeroplanes, saving enough fuel to keep 178 000 cars on the road for one year.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of these replacement materials. All of them will eventually reach an end of life and will need to be discarded. A nonwoven plastic reusable plastic bag, for example, is not recycled in South Africa because the stitching and webbing used in the manufacture of the bag are made of different materials to the bulk of the bag.
Likewise, drinking straws made from alternate materials such as glass or bamboo tubing are neither recycled in South Africa nor collected by waste pickers because of their low value and weight.
On the other hand, when combined with a responsible, well-managed waste management system, a recyclable product not only underwrites and supports a circular economy but also ensures that precious resources are protected and reused for as long as possible.
Replacing a fit-for-purpose plastic packaging material with a low carbon footprint with a material that is imported, more expensive, with a higher carbon footprint and could use scarce food resources as raw material could creating an even bigger problem instead of solving this one.
Plastics don’t litter, people do. Opting for biodegradable packaging is not going to change the human behaviour of littering. Consumers need to commit themselves to protecting our environment and educating themselves about packaging alternatives, as well as the benefits of effective plastic recycling and the correct disposal of materials they no longer need.
The marketing jargon promoting these replacement materials should be investigated before readily switching to alternative materials.
Similarly, it is of vital importance that legislators, local government, consumers and the plastics industry work together on developing solutions that are sustainable, well researched and properly evaluated.
Only through this combined effort involving consumers, industry and government can we ensure that resources are utilised and managed efficiently and cater to an increasing population seeking the unrivalled benefits offered by plastics packaging when it comes to preventing food waste, extending products’ shelf life and protecting against breakage.
Anton Hanekom is the executive director of Plastics SA