Plastic Alternatives – Blessing or Curse?

On the 3rd of July, citizens throughout the world celebrated Plastic Bag Free Day. This, hot on the heels of Environment Day and World Oceans Day, both celebrated a few weeks earlier. On all three these days, and throughout the month of Plastic Free July, consumers were encouraged to #beatplasticspollution and join the challenge to “choose to refuse” single-use plastics.

Calls for action such as these make it clear that consumers around the world are tired of visible litter. By responding on social media platforms with zealous passion, they demand to see an end to plastic packaging such as carrier bags, drinking straws and cotton ear buds.

Recognizing an opportunity to gain significant marketing and PR mileage some retailers and brand-owners were quick to respond to these public outcries by introducing alternatives such as paper bags and piloting a compostable bag made from starches, cellulose, vegetable oils and combinations as an “environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags” to replace all plastic carrier bags, barrier bags and fruit and vegetable bags.

To the uninformed, this might seem an excellent and practical solution to solve an irritating problem. The reality, unfortunately, is far from the truth. Many of the so-called “plastic alternatives” that are now flooding the market have not been properly evaluated.

Offering a compostable carrier bag to consumers sounds good in theory; however further scrutiny reveals that these bags and other biodegradable plastic products will only degrade in a properly managed composting facility and definitely not in the normal suburban compost heap.

According to the internationally accepted standard for compostability (EN 13432), the packaging must be mixed with organic waste and maintained under test scale composting conditions for 12 weeks. If not kept under ideal conditions, these bags will not biodegrade and are most likely to end up in one of the country’s landfills (also not ideal composting environment) or worse – in the recycling stream where it will contaminate the entire stream and render more material unrecyclable.

South Africa has a robust and well-developed plastics recycling industry that provided jobs to more than 52 000 collectors who collect waste that is mechanically recycled into new raw materials (more than 313 700 tons of plastic material in 2017 alone). Thanks to their dedicated efforts and the South Africans committed to recycling, 214 220 tons of CO² and enough landfill space to fill 714 Olympic sized swimming pools were saved in one year – this is the equivalent weight of 560 Airbus A380 aeroplanes, saving enough fuel to keep 178 000 cars on the road for one year!

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of these replacement materials. All of these products will eventually reach the end of life and will need to be discarded. A non-woven plastic re-usable plastic bag, for example, is not currently recycled in South Africa owing to the fact that the stitching and webbing used in the manufacture of the bag are made of different materials to the bulk of the bag.

Likewise, drinking straws made from alternate materials such as glass or bamboo tubing are neither currently recycled in South Africa nor, collected by waste pickers due to their low value and weight.

On the other hand, when combined with a responsible, well-managed waste management system, a recyclable product not only underwrites and supports a circular economy, but also ensures that precious resources are protected and reused for as long as possible.  Rejecting a “fit for purpose” plastic packaging material with a low carbon footprint, in favour of an alternative material that is imported, more expensive, with a higher carbon footprint and potentially uses scarce food resources as raw material could creating an even bigger problem, rather than solve this one.

Plastics don’t litter – people do. Opting for biodegradable packaging is not going to change the human behavior of littering. Consumers need to commit to protecting our environment and educate themselves on the facts around packaging alternatives, as well as the benefits of effective plastic recycling and the correct disposal of materials they no longer need. The marketing jargon promoting these replacement materials should be researched before boldly switching to alternative materials.

Similarly, it is of vital importance that legislators, local government, consumers and the plastics industry continue to work together on developing solutions that are sustainable, well researched and properly evaluated. Only through this combined effort can we ensure that the resources are utilized and managed efficiently and cater to an increasing population seeking the unrivaled benefits offered by plastics packaging when it comes to preventing food waste, extending shelf life of products, and protection against breakage.

Anton Hanekom

Executive Director: Plastics|SA

In blackout-hit SA, could hydrogen be the answer?

Advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology could be the answer for reliable alternative energy sources.

At first glance, the Cape Flats Nature Reserve building at the University of the Western Cape doesn’t seem exceptional.

The modest two-storey structure hosts office space and utility rooms for the six staff who care for the plants and animals living in the 30-hectare reserve.

But the building is a major milestone in South Africa’s struggle to ease its dependence on fossil fuels. It runs on hydrogen, an infinitely renewable fuel that, when used to generate power, produces no emissions apart from water and heat.

The building’s electricity is supplied by a prototype hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) power generator that was launched in November by the university’s Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Systems Centre of Competence.

Developed in collaboration with local heating-technology company Hot Platinum, the generator is a testament to South Africa’s advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology.

In a country struggling with blackouts, energy shortages, high tariffs and years of under-investment in power infrastructure, it offers the hope that hydrogen could be an answer to South Africa’s search for reliable alternative energy sources.


“The generator produces electricity in an environmentally friendly way, without pollution or noise,” said Piotr Bujlo, leader of the generator project and a technology specialist at HySA Systems.

Fuel cells are already used to power vehicles and provide power in remote or inaccessible places, including on space capsules and satellites.

Researchers at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) hope that their work on hydrogen fuel cell innovations may help with the global quest to cut reliance on fossil fuels, as well as helping with South Africa’s own attempts to give more of its population access to electricity.

According to HySA Systems, its new generator can be used anywhere where a maximum 2.5 kilowatts of electricity is required. It has an advantage over nuclear power or coal power in that hydrogen can be produced on-site – using a water electrolyser – which means there is no need to pipe or truck the fuel in from somewhere else.

“The generator is highly competitive in places where there is no grid,” Bujlo said.

Hydrogen fuel cells take the energy produced by a chemical reaction in the presence of a catalyst – such as platinum – and convert it into useable electrical power, with only water vapour and heat as by-products.

As energy-storage devices, they work much like batteries except that while batteries store all of their chemicals inside, and eventually go dead, fuel cells have a constant flow of chemicals.


“Hydrogen is the most abundant gas in the universe, so with HFC systems the energy is inexhaustible,” said Bruno Pollet, director of HySA Systems.

The generator systems used in the HySA project are almost entirely South African designed and produced, apart from the fuel cells. Pollet says the next generation of HySA technologies will be 100 percent locally developed.

HySA Systems and Hot Platinum are currently installing and testing a new version of the fuel-cell system for domestic use, with hope of having it ready to demonstrate in 2015.

The generator is one of the many innovations that have been developed under South Africa’s National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Research, Development and Innovation Strategy launched in 2007, a programme aimed at exploring the feasibility of using fuel cell technology for decentralising energy.

Cosmas Chiteme, director of alternative energy at the government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), said the government is investing in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies with the hopes of building on South Africa’s reputation in the field.

“The intention is to create the critical knowledge and human resources capacity to enable the development of high-value commercial activities,” he said.


The DST has so far invested $40 million (450 million rand) in its hydrogen-energy strategy. Using $17 million (194 million rand) to date, the University of the Western Cape’s HySA project has so far produced a range of innovations, including South Africa’s first hydrogen-powered tricycle, scooter, and golf cart, along with the country’s first fuel-cell component manufacturing line.

The private sector has been paying attention. In September, HySA Systems joined a project with European airline manufacturer Airbus and the National Aerospace Centre to work on understanding how hydrogen fuel cells might perform when subjected to the harsh and varying environmental conditions in which commercial aircraft operate.

But, according to HySA Systems director Pollet, before hydrogen energy can become more widely available, decision makers need to be persuaded of its benefits.

Hydrogen fuel cells could be commercially available in South Africa as soon as the local industry, government departments and other stakeholders see the benefits of the technology: low cost, high efficiency, clean performance,” he said.

But first, “I think they need to be educated about the technology.”

Source: Moneyweb

How green is our city?

I thought that you might be interested in a green issue with the Cape Town City Council, writes our reader, Peter Brooks:

Their CTCC is claiming to be green – and they are doing some good things, like supporting solar water heaters and large solar farms.

City discouraging domestic PV generation

However, they’re doing their best, despite the capacity problems with Eskom, to discourage individuals from having domestic solar electricity panels fitted. They’re doing it by making the finances unattractive.

From their website:

Residential customers

Residential customers that want to be compensated for energy that they place on the grid will be required to move to the SSEG tariff structure and to have an industrial bi-directional AMI credit meter installed. The purchase and installation of this meter will be done by the City and will be for the generator’s account.

Residential small-scale embedded generation tariff comprises of the following charges which will be updated annually:

  • A daily service charge of R13.03 for the use of the grid.
  • An electricity consumption charge per kWh consumed. This is currently 109.17c per kWh.
  • The rate per kWh at which the City will purchase excess generation. This is currently 49.72c per kWh and is exclusive of VAT. The City of Cape Town will credit the consumer’s electricity account in Rands (not kWh’s).

Residential generators that want to connect to the grid, but do not wish to be compensated for energy placed on the grid can remain on their existing tariff structure, but will be required to install a device which blocks reverse power flow. The City of Cape Town indicates that it will not permit existing meters to run backwards.

They’ve reduced the amount they pay for electricity already from 56.28 to 49.72 – at this rate you have to give the city 26kwh free, as well as pay for the meter so they can rob you, before they’ll pay you anything, which really isn’t a good deal at all. If you do ever need to take net power out of the grid they charge more than double, so, to break even you have to put back 2kwh for every one you take out.

Nobody seems to have picked this up, so the CTCC is able to present a false green image. Perhaps you could help with an article exposing this.

Practical difficulties make savings inappropriate, says City

The City  responded as follows:

The City is certainly not trying to mislead residents with regard to environmentally friendly initiatives such as the Small-Scale Embedded Generation (SSEG) tariff. The City has always been completely transparent about potential financial benefits for SSEG users. In an ideal world, it would be the case that selling power back on the grid resulted in savings for the consumer/producer, however there are certain practical difficulties in this regard that we have to contend with that make this inappropriate.

It must be noted that the figures provided by the letter writer are in fact incorrect. A copy of the tariff is attached. Furthermore it is unclear where the ’26 kWh for free figure’ was drawn from.

The City refunds SSEG consumers who feed electricity back onto the grid at approximately the same rate we would have paid Eskom for that electricity. Paying SSEG consumers more than the cost of Eskom electricity would mean that the additional cost of buying this electricity would have to be paid by electricity consumers who do not have SSEG. So many residents in Cape Town cannot afford to install PV infrastructure in their homes, so to impose this extra cost on them would be unfair.

Furthermore, residential consumers (who generally are not registered as VAT vendors) will not be refunded VAT and will be compensated 56,68 c less 14% VAT which amounts to 49,72 c per kWh. This is a SARS requirement.

In conclusion the City is fully committed to the adoption of solar power, and progress towards a more sustainable future. The tariff was formulated not to exploit, but to ensure that costs of providing electricity are recouped, and so that those who are not financially able to invest in solar power for their homes are not forced to make up for the shortfall.

From the Mayoral Committee Member for Utility Services, Cllr Ernest Sonnenberg.

Council not understanding

Yet the issue was still not clarified, said Peter:

Unfortunately the council hasn’t understood the most important point. The 26kwh came from their figures without VAT.

Their figures from their website are:

Service Charge: R13.03 Per Day
Energy Charge – Consumption 109.17 c/kWh Energy Charge – Generation 56.68  c/kWh

Service Charge = R 13.03 per day = 1303 cents per day.
To generate this: 1303 / 56.68 = 23kWh

So every day, with their scheme, you have to give them 23kWh of generated electricity free before they’ll pay anything.

The average electricity consumption around the world is here. South Africans consume an average of 4,389 kWh per year = 12 kWh per day.

Home generators must produce a surplus

So the Cape Town council is asking people who generate their own electricity to produce a surplus of over twice the average consumption per house in the country! This makes it completely uneconomic.
The other way of looking at it is: With solar power you don’t get any electricity at night. So, if you generate all the power you need during the day but still need power at night – say half the national average, 6 kWh. Then the Cape Town city council will charge you:

109.17 * 6 = R 6.55 a day, on top of the R13.03 a day = R18.58 per day

If you have no solar power, then your nightly cost is:

153.63 * 6 = R9.12 per day.

So, help out by taking all your power of the grid during the day, and the City Council will charge you twice as much for your nightly consumption!

Either way you look at it that’s a huge penalty they’re imposing to discourage the use of electricity.

What service are you charging for?

If they stopped the ‘service charge’ (what service are you getting if you generate your own power that and ordinary consumer doesn’t get?… none) then it would be fair.

My point is that the ‘Service Charge’ of R13.03 a day means you have to either give 23kWh (26 if you exclude VAT) to them free before you get anything back – or you have to pay twice as much for your power at night.

Why is there this huge tax on home solar power?

The City will have the opportunity to respond again…

Source: The Green Times