/ 9 November 2023

Banning and phasing out 10 problem plastics in SA will boost the economy

Italian Fisherman Recycle Plastic From The Sea
Every year, 488 kilotonne (kt) of plastic pollutes the environment in the country, contributing to air pollution through open burning (275 kt), land pollution (145 kt) and aquatic (freshwater and marine) pollution (68 kt). Photo: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

South Africa’s economy will receive a “sharp boost” from an immediate ban on plastic stirrers, straws, oxo-degradable additives — used for dog faeces bags — and microbeads in personal care products such as face scrubs and toothpaste.

This is among the findings of a new report commissioned by WWF South Africa on the socio-economic impacts of the mandatory bans and the phasing out of 10 identified “high-risk” plastic products used in the country. 

It was released on the eve of the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3), which is developing a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution

The INC3 will be held at the United Nations Environment Programme’s headquarters in Nairobi on 13-19 November. The negotiations on the treaty text are envisioned to be finalised by 2024.

The zero draft text of the global treaty lists global bans and phase-outs of problematic and avoidable plastic products as a control measure option. WWF-SA’s report describes how policymakers and industry must understand the socio-economic implications of these proposed global bans and phase-outs, “coupled with the imperative and benefits of shifting to a circular economy”.

South Africa has an established plastic value chain and high per capita plastic consumption of 32kg to 41kg compared to the global average of 29kg, it said. Packaging accounts for 52% of plastic use, followed by the construction and agricultural sectors. 

Every year, 488 kilotonne (kt) of plastic pollutes the environment in the country, contributing to air pollution through open burning (275 kt), land pollution (145 kt) and aquatic (freshwater and marine) pollution (68 kt).

Positive economic outcomes

Ten “problem plastic products” were chosen for the study, which considers three scenarios: a business-as-usual scenario forecasting how the industry and economy would evolve without any interventions; an outright ban on the four selected plastic products deemed unnecessary or readily replaceable by 2025; and a steady phase-out of six selected plastic products, with “complete cessation” by 2030.

The report’s key findings are that the ban and phase-out scenarios demonstrate positive economic outcomes with “notable real GDP and employment expansion” compared to the business-as-usual scenario “in a country where the wider plastic manufacturing and conversion sector contributes 2% to GDP”.

The ban scenario for the four items displays a sharp boost to the economy while the phase-out approach for the six items shows a shift towards higher-skilled, better paying jobs.

Problem plastics

If alternatives are needed for the four plastic products chosen for bans, they are “already available”. Metal spoons and wooden stirrers are alternatives for plastic stirrers while straws should only be for medical use. 

For oxo-degradable products, there is “no replacement or alternative needed” and there should be an outright ban on these. Cellulose-based particles are an alternative for microbeads in personal care products.

The six problem plastics selected for phasing out are barrier bags (including for fruit, vegetables and fresh bread); lollipop sticks; polystyrene fast-food/takeaway containers; sachets for takeout food items (like tomato sauce); single-use tableware; and cotton buds with plastic stems.

For these items, economically and technologically feasible alternatives “are not readily available” and time is needed for further research and development, the report said.

Other problem plastic items including cigarette filters, snack packaging, sanitary towels, nappies, fishing nets, polystyrene vending cups and lids of soft-drink bottles were excluded. While all of these have a high leakage rate into the environment in South Africa, there is a “lack of environmentally sound and/or economically feasible alternatives” to replace them for now.

The report noted how none of the 10 plastic products is collected for recycling by informal reclaimers or waste pickers “so the bans and phase-outs will not directly affect their livelihoods”.

Jobs and wages

In a country with “extreme levels of unemployment (currently 33%)”, the report paid specific attention to indicators for job creation, job loss and the diversity of the skilled workforce that may be linked to the production and manufacturing of plastic items. 

It found that the total employment growth (formal and informal employment) per scenario increases to 2030 for the business-as-usual scenario were 3.2%; 3.5% for the ban scenario and 5.2% for the phase-out scenario.

For the business-as-usual scenario, cumulative wage increases up to 2030 were 8%; for the ban scenario 8.4% and 10.4% for the phase-out scenario. 

“Results show a boost to real GDP outcomes and total employment across gender,

and an improvement in real wages and household income,” it said. 

“The baseline scenario for informal employment shows a cumulative increase of 22% by 2030, while with the ban and phase-out scenarios informal employment increases, with cumulative growth rates of 23% and 24% by 2030, respectively.”

On gender, from a baseline of total employment at 7 959 million females and 6 959 million males, growth by 2030 under the ban scenario is an increase of 22 000 jobs for females and 24 000 jobs for males. Under the phase-out scenario, there will be an increase of 159 000 jobs for females and 151 000 for males.

Reducing plastic leakage

On greenhouse gas emissions, in the ban scenario, there is an increase of 0.35% in greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors from the baseline “because of slight increases in the mining and manufacturing sectors following the switch to alternatives”. 

For the phase-out scenario, across all sectors, the overall greenhouse gas emissions increase by 0.55% from the baseline, the report said, noting that the ban and phase-out scenarios show evidence of environmental benefits in reducing plastic leakage, “whereas greenhouse gas emissions show a slight increase across all sectors”.

The report concluded that given the evidence of overall beneficial socio-economic outcomes of the bans and phase-outs, the government “should support this control measure in negotiating the text of the global treaty. It should also highlight the need for support for implementation”.

Reskilling, training

Job losses in the plastics sector and gains in sectors providing alternative products and services would require workforce reskilling and training initiatives by both the government and the private sector.

Localisation of manufacturing for domestic use (and export) of alternative products (for example refillable packaging models) would support job creation for both genders. 

“Specific focus is needed to support the informal sector and marginalised communities through providing alternatives that avoid any burden of increased costs or barriers to access,” the report said.

Economic policy, such as tax subsidies or fees to incentivise the manufacture and use of alternative products and systems, would be required, accompanied by behaviour change programmes for businesses and citizens.