/ 17 September 2021

Plastic pollution in 2019 cost South Africa staggering R885bn

(Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)
The minimum lifetime cost to South Africa of the plastic produced in 2019 is a staggering R885,34-billion. (Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)

The minimum lifetime cost to South Africa of the plastic produced in 2019 is a staggering R885.34-billion, including damage to livelihoods and key economic industries such as fishing and tourism, clean-up costs to the government and threats to the health of the population.

A new report on the true costs of plastic, prepared by global consulting firm Dalberg for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, says if South Africa signed on to a new global plastics treaty, this could help it tackle the crisis more efficiently.

In June, the Mail & Guardian reported how leaked documents from the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment indicated South Africa’s intention to reject the proposed treaty after the department consulted only the plastics sector and other business interest groups.

Although the department has stressed that this is a draft position, it did not take part in the recent global ministerial conference on marine litter and plastic pollution. Most United Nations member states — 119 countries — have supported the establishment of a new global agreement to tackle plastic pollution.

In a recent parliamentary question the head of forestry, fisheries and the environment in the opposition Democratic Alliance, Dave Bryant, asked the minister for that portfolio, Barbara Creecy, whether her department was opposed to the global treaty and whether it was considering importing plastic waste, among others.

In her reply on 10 September, Creecy responded: “South Africa is aware of the global discussions around a potential new international treaty on marine litter and plastic pollution and has been participating actively in the United Nations Environment Assembly’s (UNEA’s) ad-hoc open-ended expert group on marine litter and microplastics where the matter has been considered.”

South Africa had not finalised the “due process” to inform any pronouncement concerning the global treaty for plastic pollution, Creecy said, adding: “This will only be done after a position paper is taken through the cabinet process.”

Next February, the UNEA deliberations on the negotiating mandate for a new global treaty to address plastic pollution will get underway.

Nhlanhla Sibisi, the climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, told the Mail & Guardian that the government’s approach is a “lost opportunity: for South Africa.

“The more that we are dilly-dallying around the issue, the more the pollution increases. The statistics from last year showed that on average, we are offloading one truck of plastic a day into the ocean. The longer it takes, we are actually prolonging the problem. South Africa, with its progressive policies, you would have expected that they would have taken a lead, especially on the African continent, to shape a way forward for the continent. I don’t think they’re taking their role seriously as a leader on the continent.”

Sibisi said the government had a “lacklustre” approach to the plastics issue. “We know that for a fact because the plastic lobbying industry in South Africa is very strong.”

“The impact of plastic pollution on the environment and wildlife is catastrophic and requires a global response,” said Prabhat Upadhyaya, a senior political analyst at WWF South Africa. “South Africa needs to take a coherent approach for meeting environment and development objectives simultaneously, it should not be an either-or conversation anymore.” 

Creecy said plans are underway to import more plastic waste into South Africa. The country is party to the Basel Convention on the control of the transboundary movement of waste.

“Using the guidance from the Basel Convention, the department has set up systems to handle applications for the importation of plastic waste. The applicants that intend to bring plastic waste into the country are obliged to indicate the intended use of the plastics and evidence of scarcity of the type of plastic waste they intend to import into South Africa,” Creecy said.

Niven Reddy, the African coordinator of Break Free from Plastic, said the idea to import plastic waste “is not just a ridiculous idea but an irresponsible one”.

“Apart from the fact that we can barely manage with our own waste generation, it perpetuates this idea of waste colonialism. Giving the global north power to dump their undesired waste onto the global south is not solving the problem,” he said.

“If a country cannot manage its waste and needs to export it, they should be thinking about reducing that waste from being generated rather than finding another place to dump it. If we go ahead with this then we are basically saying that it is okay to treat vulnerable communities in the global south as disposable.”

Creecy said the country’s current systems and processes were “effective in significantly reducing the amount of plastic waste”, particularly in the ocean. 

These include the extended producer responsibility regulations; cabinet’s approval of the national waste management strategy 2020; amended regulations to plastic carrier bags;   the SA Plastics Pact, a voluntary initiative to end plastic waste; and the plastics master plan, led by the department of trade, industry and competition. 

The WWF report noted how a global treaty could provide the global coordination, access to research, and financial support required to reduce the damage to the economy and risks to human health from plastic pollution.

“The treaty could provide the financial support needed for South Africa to undertake required expansions in their waste management system to improve plastic collection rates and reduce leakage. Agreed standards and methodologies for reporting and monitoring will provide incentives for stakeholders in collection and recycling to maintain established collection and recycling rates and allow them to be held accountable,” it said.

With global coordination the treaty will increase the effectiveness of regulations such as banning single use plastic by limiting the opportunity for illegal imports of non-compliant plastic, according to the report.

The country’s waste management system is struggling to deal with national plastic waste generation, with a significant amount of plastic leaking into the environment. 

South Africa generates an annual 41kg of plastic waste per capita — the global average is 29kg a year — and has a “weak and strained” waste management system, supported by a growing but marginalised informal waste sector. In 2018, 35% of households did not receive weekly waste collection and 29% of household waste was not collected. 

As a result, plastic leakage is high, with an estimated 79 000 tonnes of plastic leaking into the environment a year. South Africa is the 11th worst global offender of leaking land-based plastic into the ocean in absolute terms.

According to the report, “There is also evidence of an increase in marine plastic debris from land-based sources within South Africa, suggesting this problem is likely to grow.”

This plastic leakage threatens livelihoods and key economic industries, such as tourism, which contributes 2.9% to South Africa’s GDP.

“For example, research demonstrates that litter density of over 10 large items per metre of beach would deter 40% of foreign tourists and 60% of local tourists from returning to Cape Town,” the report says.

The fisheries sector is also at risk, with studies showing that ingestion of microplastics by fish has the potential to decrease the fish stocks and quality of catch. The commercial fisheries sector directly employs 27 000 people and a further 29 233 people considered subsistence fishers. 

To reduce these risks, local authorities spend a significant portion of their budgets cleaning plastic pollution and illegal dumping. “Depending on the size and budget of the municipality, the cost of cleaning ranges between 1% and 26% of municipal operating expenditure for waste management.”

Many of South Africa’s landfills do not meet compliance standards, with an estimated 40% of plastic waste — 45 000 tonnes — ending up in non-compliant landfills in 2017. This, along with high rates of uncollected waste, has made burning a common practice.

“The chemical pollutants that are released have been linked to countless health issues including the development of respiratory health conditions,” the report said.