Death or taxes for polluting plastic

Pictures of decaying sea birds, their body cavities stuffed with plastic — from lighters to bottle tops — will be among the first things you see when you google “bird” and “plastic”. The plastic junk will long outlast the birds’ corpses and in all likelihood go on to kill more sea creatures. Or it will, as the pieces break apart over time, join the incalculable number of microplastics in the oceans.

READ MORE: Dead whale full of plastic

Studies have also found these minute pieces of plastic, which are smaller than 5mm, in the water we drink and the food we eat.

Last month the European Parliament finalised a law banning a range of single-use plastic items, including cutlery, straws, cotton bud sticks and balloon sticks by 2021. It is the latest step in international efforts to address the human plastic consumption catastrophe.

To tax or to ban?

South Africa is pondering two options — a ban on “prioritised” single-use plastics — straws, cotton bud sticks, cutlery, beverage stirrers and polystyrene — or a tax on single-use plastics products.

The plastics and packaging industries, which employ about 60 000 people, are unhappy on both counts, arguing that properly managed recycling and waste management systems are the answer to South Africa’s problem.

Whether it is higher taxes or an all-out ban, there is “no silver bullet” to address the country’s trash conundrum, said Lorren de Kock, project manager for the circular plastics economy at the Worldwide Fund for Nature, South Africa (WWF-SA). The problems are systemic, she said — ranging from producers and consumers to the country’s increasing inability to manage its waste, particularly at municipal level.

South Africa is believed to have comparatively high manual recycling rates, thanks in no small measure to its network of roughly 200 000 informal waste pickers. They sift through South Africa’s rubbish and separate out about 80% to 90% of the recyclables collected, according to De Kock.

Nevertheless, South Africa is ranked among the top 20 offenders globally for mismanaged waste, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science. South Africans produce 2kg of plastic waste per person a day, second only to the United States, and 56% of the waste we produce is mismanaged and makes its way into the natural environment.

In late February the department of environmental affairs told parliamentarians that government is contemplating banning the most problematic single-use plastics. The presentation to the portfolio committee on environmental affairs, followed shortly after the budget, in which the treasury announced a proposed levy on all single-use plastics as part of a wider reform of the country’s environmental taxes, such as the plastic bag levy that has been in place since 2004.

But how well would another tax work? According to data from the South African Revenue Service, the bag levy was introduced at three cents a bag, and has steadily risen to 12 cents a bag in 2018. The purchase of plastic bags, however, continued to rise, peaking at about four billion in 2012, according to information presented by the department of environmental affairs. Between 2013 and 2017, it declined to about three billion. The tax raised was about R1.9-billion between 2004-2005 and 2017-2018.

The effectiveness of the various environmental levies introduced by the state has been a “mixed bag”, said Kyle Mandy, tax policy leader for auditing firm PwC. “To a large extent the revenues raised were never recycled, for purposes of environmental objectives, so very little has gone back into the recycling of plastic bags, which is what it was always intended to do,” he said.

If provision is not made for other measures to accompany a single-use plastics tax — for instance, ways to make it easier for polluters to mitigate negative environmental effects — then the tax risks becoming just a revenue-raising mechanism, said Mandy.

Industry bodies such as Packaging SA (PSA) have decried both a ban and tax. Shabeer Jhetam, PSA’s executive director, said a blanket single-use plastics tax, which is not ring-fenced and goes towards the general fiscus, is unlikely to solve the problem. He said the state could consider other economic instruments to encourage recycling, such as deposit collection schemes to encourage people to return their plastics waste.

In terms of a ban on priority single-use plastics, Jhetam points out that it is not always easy to replace these items with alternatives, and where these exist, they come with their own problems. For instance, many of the paper straws being used to replace plastic ones are imported from China, creating another carbon footprint. He said South Africa needs to find a way to manufacture items locally.

But the local packaging market is relatively small and certain products may not be cost-effective to produce. For instance, according to the department of environmental affairs, compostable straws cost between 15 and 20 cents to make, compared with three cents for plastic straws.

But it is critical that consumers “come to the party”, Jhetam said. “There is still a lot of apathy among consumers in terms of good environmental practice and recycling … We are a throw-away society.”

Consumers also set the standard for what the industry — manufacturers, retailers and brand owners — produces, including what they are willing to pay for alternatives. “Are we prepared to pay a few cents more?” he asked, especially since South Africa is not a wealthy country.

The packaging industry, which includes producers of glass, metals, plastics and paper products, has submitted an extended producer responsibility plan (EPR) — an industry waste management plan which proposes that the responsibility for a product extends beyond the post-consumer stage of its life-cycle. The EPR, which is awaiting approval from the department of environmental affairs, proposes that efforts to manage the country’s waste streams be led by industry.

Under the EPR plan, industry is targeting paper and packaging recycling and collection levels of 66.9% by 2023. Jhetam points out that this is even better than targets that the European Union has set for itself.

Struggling to separate

A key feature of the plan is to move towards separation at source, especially at municipal and city level. “We need mandatory separation at source in South Africa,” said Jhetam. But the department of environmental affairs told Parliament that municipalities do not have the resources to recycle correctly, according to minutes from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group.

De Kock said the difficulties with separation at source begin with the fact that fewer than 50% of households have proper waste collection. Many municipalities do not function properly, which leads to illegal dumping, and they do not have properly managed and engineered landfills. The use of plastics in packaging has exploded in recent years, she noted, and the country’s waste management systems have been unable to keep up.

Another contributing factor is that packaging being produced by retailers, brand owners and manufacturers is not designed for recycling.

A tax on single-use plastics could discourage the production of problematic plastics, she said, but more detail is needed on how it would work. For example, will the tax apply to only virgin material — plastic that comes directly from petrochemical by-products and has never been used or recycled? How a “single-use plastic” is defined is also important, she said. For instance, would a plastic label on a spice bottle be defined as single-use?

De Kock said the emphasis should be to get all plastics into a circular economy model. This means plastic products are designed for easy collection, separation and recycling.

“If it can’t be recycled, it must be eliminated,” she said.

Bioplastics not all biofriendly

There has been a spike in bioplastics that purport to be made of environmentally friendly material that decompose.

But De Kock and industry bodies warned against the claims of many of these unregulated products which, for instance, only biodegrade under very specific conditions and need the likes of industrial composting equipment to break down.

Often consumers are not told about how to dispose of these products properly, she said, and they can contaminate the waste streams that go into recyclable plastics, destroying whole batches of recycled material.

Fixing the waste recycling system is enormously complex and there is no easy solution, said De Kock. “It is a whole system that you have to change.”

Retailers take up the fight

Retailers in South Africa have begun to respond to concerns over single-use plastics. Woolworths wants all its brand plastic packaging to be reusable or recyclable by 2022, and is phasing out all single-use plastic shopping bags by 2020. The company has introduced paper-stemmed earbuds and stopped selling plastic straws or offering plastic straws and cutlery at its W Cafes and Now Now kiosks.

Pick n Pay announced last week that it would give customers who spent R50 or more a free reusable bag made from recycled plastic. This follows the introduction of its fully recyclable blue carrier bags made from 60% post-consumer waste and 40% factory waste.

But retailers say replacing the plastic packaging used to extend the shelf life of fresh foods with an environmentally friendly alternative is difficult. Woolworths said the plastic wrapper around a cucumber reduces the cucumber’s respiration rate, ensuring its shelf life is three times longer and that red meat packed in paper would lose moisture quickly without an adequate oxygen barrier. — Lynley Donnelly

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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