/ 25 June 2021

Plastic: South Africa is 11th-biggest litterbug

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Stuck: The department of forestry, fisheries and the environment does not support establishing a new multilateral environmental agreement on plastics, according to a leaked document, and to the dismay of environmentalists. Photo: Paul Botes

The “so-called” representatives of South Africa’s plastics industry will drag the country to “pariah status” by not supporting the establishment of a new global plastics treaty.

This is the view of Prabhat Upadhyaya, a senior policy analyst at World Wide Fund For Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), who was commenting on a leaked draft document from the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment — as reported on by the Mail & Guardian this week — which reveals how local industry and the government do not support the establishment of a new multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) on plastics

“South Africa, thus, does not support the establishment of a new MEA on plastics as the plastic, marine plastic litter and microbeads, as such are already partly, and can be fully accommodated in several MEAs,” South Africa’s draft position paper on the proposed new global plastic treaty states.

“What is needed is the strengthening, better coordination and collaboration of these MEAs to ensure that all the identified gaps are closed and addressed,” it says. 

According to Upadhyaya: “We need to read the winds of change better by internalising the lessons from our delay in transitioning away from fossil fuels when we had time.” 

“By dragging our feet once more, we are not going to attract any new investment from investors who are getting increasingly conscious about environmental risks.” 

Regulations, whether international or national, needed to provide carrots and sticks, he said, such as “incentives or penalties to the polluting industries to change their behaviour to meet new challenges and not be designed to fit the industry’s comfort zone”.

The draft was prepared for a ministerial conference in September, which is being jointly organised by Ghana, Vietnam, Ecuador and Germany to build momentum and political will to advance a coherent global strategy to end marine litter and plastic pollution.

The confidential document reveals how South Africa is the 11th-worst global offender for leaking land-based plastic into the ocean.  

Activists say the country needs to end its unhealthy relationship with plastics, which are tied to fossil fuels and poor health.

About 79 000 tonnes of plastic leak to the ocean and main rivers every year, which is about 3% of the country’s annual plastic waste. 

The draft describes how the Basel Convention, which controls the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal “is adequate to address the plastic waste issues as it has the capacity, the expertise and the experience”.

“The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants has listed some of the problematic chemicals found in plastics, including the development of various technical guidelines on environmental sound management.”

Business Unity South Africa, the department of trade, industry and competition and Plastics SA were consulted as part of the draft. 

“This is a very industry-driven position,” said Rico Euripidou, the environmental health campaign manager for groundWork, an environmental justice organisation. 

“Their premise for not wanting another multilateral agreement is based on this potentially creating duplication …. However, this proposed idea of a plastics treaty is going to take into account the entire life cycle of plastic and not just the trade or disposal components of it, as per the mandates of the multilateral agreement.”

Of all the plastics produced in the world between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled, Euripidou pointed out. 

Stakeholders at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) have officially recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”.  A subsequently formed expert group proposed that a global treaty was the most effective means for mitigating the plastics and associated climate crisis.

Experts estimate that over the next 10 to 20 years, global plastic production will surge and possibly even double. 

Euripidou said: “The UN expert group concluded that ‘current governance strategies and approaches provide a fragmented approach that does not adequately address marine plastic litter and microplastics’. That’s why we cannot rely on the existing tools to address the problem.”

In the draft, the department argues that a new treaty would lead to the duplication of efforts, not maximising already limited resources and not “identifying synergies” with existing MEAs that can address plastic throughout its life cycle and value chain, marine litter and microplastic problem.

“The international donors are the same for all the chemicals and waste MEAs, and possibly others; there would be more intense competition for resources from the same donors. There would be certainly less money available for the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions, which list and address highly toxic chemicals that lead to exponentially more serious exposure that one would get from plastic waste alone.”

Albi Modise, the spokesperson for the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment, emphasised that the document was in draft form. 

“At this stage no decision whatsoever has been taken by the department on any new international agreement that arises from UNEA with regard to plastic waste. Leaked draft documents do not represent decisions of the organisation.”

He said the department was deeply concerned about plastic waste. 

“It is a matter of public record that we have taken a range of measures to combat plastic waste and will continue to focus on this with the greatest diligence.” 

Plastics SA declined to comment. 

The draft cites how the department of trade, industry and competition said the “listing of plastics will unintentionally hinder the development of the market for plastic waste, by raising the administrative burden and the costs of shipping plastic waste”.

Angelo Louw, Greenpeace Africa’s pan-African plastic project lead, said: “One of the scariest realisations in the document is that our government is considering importing plastic waste despite global outrage against using other countries as dumping sites.”

The proposed treaty, Louw said, will put in place a global standard, allowing for easier enforcement. “It would be easy to convene existing plastic laws, as in Kenya where contraband plastic is being smuggled into the country because its neighbours have not banned single-use plastic items.”

The treaty, he said, can be leveraged by the continent’s leaders when faced with pressure to accept unfair arrangements for plastic with the Global North, including the waste trade and harmful packaging.

Modise said the import and export of plastic waste in South Africa was handled through the Basel Convention. 

“The department has set up systems to handle applications for approval. The applicants that intend to bring the plastic waste into the country are obliged to indicate the intended use of the plastics in the country [and] are asked to show evidence of scarcity of the type of plastic they want to import.”

Louw said South Africa was “digging an early grave” for its citizens. 

“Studies are constantly showing how dangerous plastic is from human health at every stage of its production. 

“The UN found that communities involved in the production, consumption and disposal of plastic suffered with much higher incidence of terminal illnesses. And most of these underprivileged communities, globally, comprised people of colour.” 

Upadhyaya said South Africa urgently needed to re-imagine its relationship with plastic, including how it sourced its raw materials from fossil fuels, how it was produced, consumed and disposed of. 

“This unhealthy relationship with plastics is presented starkly in the waste sector, with informal waste reclaimers bearing the burden of collecting and sorting plastic waste with little or no compensation,” he said.