We need to dump our take-make-waste attitude to plastic

Producing, packing and distributing a kilogram of Woolworths raspberries produces between 150g and 200g of non-recycled plastic waste — the same as eight 500ml plastic bottles — with just under a third arising at the farming stage and more than half from consumption, a new WWF-SA report called Plastics: Facts and Futures reveals.

“However, when looking only at plastic waste that is not recycled, the ‘hotspot’ at consumption is even more pronounced,” states the report. 

“This is because a fair proportion of the farm plastics are recycled at their end of life whereas the PET punnets in which raspberries are packaged are not currently recycled in South Africa due to low economic feasibility and the lack of mechanical recycling technology available in the country,” the report states.

The research was conducted with Woolworths in the life cycle of its raspberries and English cucumbers to better understand and quantify the trade-off between the benefits that plastics bring to fresh produce supply chains and the environmental impacts of plastics.

It found that plastic waste generated across the life cycle of English cucumbers is markedly lower than raspberries, with the plastic sleeve wrapper so light that the farming stage dominates the life cycle of the plastic waste of the cucumber more considerably than for raspberries, with 80% of the plastic waste arising at the farming stage.

To cut down on its plastic use, the Woolworths group has announced that customers won’t be able to buy plastic bags at 121 of its stores from 9 November, which is part of its vision to have zero packaging waste-to-landfill and for all its packaging to be reusable or recyclable by 2022.

In South Africa, the WWF-SA report says, the plastics economy is almost entirely based on the linear “take-make-waste” approach.

Though plastic meets a “multiplicity of needs” in society, it poses significant environmental, social and economic risks. 

Tackling the plastic pollution challenge requires a life cycle approach with “failures occurring at each stage of the plastics life cycle all contributing to the problem”.

“South Africa consumes both locally produced and imported fossil-fuel based plastic raw material, which is often cheaper than recycled material. There are significant climate change impacts at each stage of the value chain, from production to disposal,” the report says.

Projected expansion in plastics production to meet the exponential increase in consumption will significantly increase the plastics sector’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, from 4% in 2015 to 15% by 2050. 

The report says illegal dumping and litter is symptomatic of a weak, fragmented waste management system. This is a result of the inadequate collection and sorting infrastructure combined with a lack of capacity in municipalities.

The country’s “struggling recycling economy”’ is characterised by a vulnerable and undersupported informal waste collection, sorting and recycling sector. The country’s total plastic consumption for 2018 was two million tons — which amounts to 36kg per person for that year. The global average is 51kg. 

Sometimes, the report says, plastic packaging is only used for a few days, or even minutes, and how plastic is produced and used needs to be “fundamentally redesigned”.

By 2030, South Africa can make progress towards a circular plastics economy “founded on the principles of circular design, innovative reuse and refill schemes, a thriving recycling economy and established markets for secondary resources”.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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