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.
Executive Director: Plastics|SA
There are 200 million tons of plastic in use today, volumes of which will eventually end up in the waste streams harming sea life, devouring landfill space, and gumming up recyclers’ equipment. While the push to properly recycle plastics is high, so is the trend to re-engineer the products so they are compostable, and overall safer for the environment — especially as municipalities reach for zero waste goals.
“Compostable products help to make sorting easier for consumers, and are designed to break down in professionally managed composting facilities,” said Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). And compostable plastics, made from plants rather than oil, have the power to reduce fossil fuel dependence, foster sustainability, and cut food waste in landfills.
But there’s confusion about which products are truly compostable, and even doubt about what “compostable” means. Compostable plastics, also known as bioplastics, present other challenges too.
Organizations like the one Yepsen leads are working with plastics manufacturers, composters, and other stakeholders to address the issues, starting with clearly defining “compostable,” then helping to design products that work for manufacturers, consumers, and processors.
What is compostable?
For a product — plastic or any other — to be compostable, it must have three features.
“It must disintegrate. It must biodegrade, meaning microorganisms will eat it and process it. And it needs to leave behind no toxic remnants,” said Sarah Martinez, sustainability maven of Eco-Products, one of several companies that sells compostable plastic products. Their clients are from the food industry and their supplier is NatureWorks, which makes corn-based plastic pellets that are converted to the company’s lines — cold beverage cups, clam shells (hinged to-go boxes), sushi containers, cutlery, and cups with polylactic acid (PLA) lining, among others.
Industry standards lack teeth
“Almost anything is biodegradable over very extended time. Compostability says the product is biodegrading in a certain time frame and that what’s left over is healthy,” said Martinez.
There are industry standards to define compostability, but no laws to enforce them. Among resulting challenges is inconsistent decomposition rates from product to product, which can impede commercial composting operations. However this label issue has not gotten by the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). The organization notes that some biodegradable plastics can be recycled with organic wastes, but heeds warning that they can lead to contamination in other plastic recycling streams.
Therefore, “Managers for food scrap collection programs need to ensure they are only using certified compostable products, which have been independently tested and third-party verified,” said Yepsen, forewarning that when potentially problematic biodegradable materials enter the compost stream, they are hard to identify. The BPI maintains a database of all products that it has certified as compostable.
Challenges extending beyond the “gray areas”
Beyond defining the term “compostable,” there are many challenges in creating compostable plastics. The materials and end products are not cheap to produce, there’s much less bio-based plastic than petroleum-derived plastic, and the technology faces some barriers. For instance, PLA can’t handle much heat, limiting its functionality unless product designers invest in a costly secondary process.
Then there is the issue of limited composting infrastructure in the U.S., noted Martinez.
Eco-Product has found a niche in a new market with tough challenges; food service operators willing to invest either because they want to do the right thing or build their brand as an environmentally responsible company. And some cities are banning Styrofoam and rigid, hard polystyrene, creating greater demand.
The company works with sports venues to divert organic waste from landfills, and compostable plastics make it easier to do than traditional food packaging. “Asking fans to scrape out nacho cheese, to put it in the trash, and then put the package in a compost bin is hard. But these plastics go with food in the compost bin, so it’s easy,” Martinez said.
The U.S. Composting Council (USCC), BPI, and the Food Service Packaging Institute are helping processors grow a structure to accommodate more than the food and sports industries. BPI and USCC produced a Quick Check Guide for compostable products, and a Compostable Plastics Toolkit to help solid waste professionals determine if a compostable plastics program is a good fit for them.
Eco-Products is among companies that make compostable products based on ASTM standards and provides samples to determine how long it takes to compost them in recyclers’ systems.
“This helps them understand if they may need to run their process longer or at a higher temperature. Or if they need to process less if it is breaking down fast,” said Martinez. “We have a long way to go before we have a composting infrastructure to divert from landfill.”
But speaking for the company she works for, she added, they will stay with it.
“We feel strongly about the value of (these products’) role in diverting food scraps from landfill.”
CAPE TOWN – A South African expert says citizens have failed at using recycling as a method to combat waste.
Plastic could outweigh the amount of fish in our oceans by 2050, the World Economic Forum (WEF) warned in a report last week.
Plastic production has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to over 300 million tonnes worldwide last year.
Currently, only 14 percent of plastic goods – mostly packaging – are being recycled.
Plastics are fossil-fuel based and it’s impossible to remake plastic into the quality it was before, says Muna Lakhani, founder of Zero Waste in Africa.
Lakhani says South Africans have failed.
“We’ve been recycling for probably 30 or 40 years and it hasn’t made any sort of significant dent in the waste stream. The most problematic material in our recycling stream is indeed plastic.”
Urgent intervention is needed to stop an estimated 25million tons of plastic flowing into the oceans every year.
If nothing is done, humans will start to asphyxiate themselves in less than two decades because plastic pollution is impairing plankton’s ability to produce oxygen.
“People do not realise that 50% of the earth’s oxygen is produced by microscopic plankton in the ocean. And if take that away we won’t be able to breath soon,” said Marco Simeoni, president of the Race for Water Foundation.
Yesterday the foundation shared an overview of the current state of pollution in oceans at a media briefing at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town.
The foundation’s scientific crew collected data and compiled a snapshot of plastic pollution across the globe on a 300-day, 40 000 nautical mile research expedition as part of a United Nations-led campaign called The Race for Water Odyssey.
They visited island beaches situated in known pollution hotspots – five vortexes of plastic waste miles wide that has formed across the various oceans.
“Our preliminary results from the first three stopovers in the Azores, Bermudas and Easter Island showed that plastic makes up 80% of waste in our seas,” said Frédéric Sciacca, scientific adviser to the odyssey.
Hard plastic made up between 40% and 74% of the total amount of plastic found at these three sites. Fishing line and rope was the next biggest category, followed by foam, capsules, film and cigarette filters.
Plastic pollution is taking a devastating toll on sea life with 267 different species known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all sea bird species, while 70 to 100% of albatrosses are known to ingest plastics.
“Plastic is also putting the human food chain at risk. Fish are eating the plastic, and we are eating the fish. We are starting to ingest toxic material,” Simeoni said.
The mayority of plastic pollution is caused by land-based pollution that is swept into the oceans by heavy rains and rivers.
“We cannot live without plastic. Our aims is to find ways to clean up the ocean and to develop sustainable and viable industrial techniques for collecting plastic in order to stop it being a pollution,” Simeoni said.
Researchers from CSIRO and Imperial College London have assessed how widespread the threat of plastic is for the world’s seabirds, including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins, and found the majority of seabird species have plastic in their gut.
The study, led by Dr Chris Wilcox with co-authors Dr Denise Hardesty and Dr Erik van Sebille and published today in the journal PNAS, found that nearly 60 per cent of all seabird species have plastic in their gut.
Based on analysis of published studies since the early 1960s, the researchers found that plastic is increasingly common in seabird’s stomachs.
In 1960, plastic was found in the stomach of less than 5 per cent of individual seabirds, rising to 80 per cent by 2010.
The researchers predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99 per cent of the world’s seabird species by 2050, based on current trends.
The scientists estimate that 90 per cent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind.
This includes bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibres from synthetic clothes, which have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits.
Birds mistake the brightly coloured items for food, or swallow them by accident, and this causes gut impaction, weight loss and sometimes even death.
“For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species – and the results are striking,” senior research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Dr Wilcox said.
“We predict, using historical observations, that 90 per cent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution.”
Dr Denise Hardesty from CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere said seabirds were excellent indicators of ecosystem health.
“Finding such widespread estimates of plastic in seabirds is borne out by some of the fieldwork we’ve carried out where I’ve found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird,” Dr Hardesty said.
The researchers found plastics will have the greatest impact on wildlife where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.
Dr van Sebille, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said the plastics had the most devastating impact in the areas where there was the greatest diversity of species.
“We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas,” Erik van Sebille said.
“While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live here.”
Dr Hardesty said there was still the opportunity to change the impact plastic had on seabirds.
“Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife,” she said.
“Even simple measures can make a difference. Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs with less than a decade, which suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time.”
Chief Scientist at the US-based Ocean Conservancy Dr George H. Leonard said the study was highly important and demonstrated how pervasive plastics were in oceans.
“Hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world come face-to-face with this problem during annual Coastal Cleanup events,” Dr Leonard said.
“Scientists, the private sector and global citizens working together against the growing onslaught of plastic pollution can reduce plastic inputs to help protect marine biodiversity.”
Industry body Plastics South Africa (SA) believes that its sustainability objective, dubbed ‘Zero Plastics to Landfill by 2030’, which was launched in February last year, is both realistic and achievable. The organisation says the goal, which will be pursued in phases, will rely heavily on improved access to solid waste streams, with separation at source viewed as increasingly critical to bolstering recycling rates.
Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom says the rising cost of landfill space places recycling at the top of the agenda for all packaging streams and that its sustainability initiatives are, thus, focusing on developing strategies that will enable the plastics industry to increase recycling rates.
Government is also supportive, but Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa believes that waste as a resource remains neglected, notwithstanding rising volumes and advances in technology.
Speaking during the National Waste Manage- ment Summit in March, the Minister argued that current waste management practices were inadequate and urged stakeholders to pursue innovative ideas to improve waste management systems and drive the recycling economy.
Molewa said the country should move towards implementing Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) policies and waste management strategies, which had been designed to encourage reuse, recycling and recovery, with disposal of waste at landfills being a last resort.
The DEA was working with provinces, municipalities and industry to ensure that the economic benefits emanating from recycling waste were realised and that the country moved away from dumping recyclable waste at landfill sites.
Plastics SA hopes that higher recycling rates will positively affect the economy, resulting in the initiation of programmes that will enhance locally manufactured plastic goods, create employment, in line with the National Development Plan (NDP), and increase consumer partici- pation in the recycling process.
Plastics SA has identified seven key aspects of improvement and development to align the plastics industry’s objectives with the sustain- ability objective of the NDP.
These areas are: developing an effective infrastructure across the value chain, ensuring ongoing research and development into new technologies and markets, establishing credible data sources and information sharing across the value chain, developing skills to enable technology and infrastructure, changing and improving consumer understanding and behaviour regarding recycling and waste disposal, developing industry collaboration towards the outcomes envisioned by Plastics SA, and ensuring constructive and effective engagement and collaboration between industry and government.
To achieve these goals, Plastics SA has envisioned a phased development of the initiative to 2030 – the foundation-setting phase (2014 to 2017), the building and innovation phase (2018 to 2020) and the optimising phase (2020 to 2030).
During the foundation-setting phase, Plastics SA’s objective is the uniform operation of the plastics industry and the provision of infrastructure guidelines that need to be followed by all stakeholders, as well as the establishment of a research and development plan, and the development of a mixed plastics recycling technology that will foster the
Additionally, the phase will include the development of an industry statistics tool and a government engagement plan; life-cycle assessments of plastics; the implementation of a skills map and government training for stakeholders; recycling labels on plastic products sold to get consumers involved; and the initiation of clean-ups.
The building and innovating phase will aim to put waste-to-energy solutions in place, trigger the building of recycling centres, provide statistics and life- cycle assessments to inform industry of the progress of the initiative, foster ongoing collaboration with government, increase collaboration to include other packaging companies and designate trained waste-management officers appointed by government to different recycling centres.
The optimising phase will greatly emphasise the recycling rates and put solutions in place for all remaining waste, implement recycling campaigns across the country, and optimise government and industry collaborations.
To further strengthen the initiative, recycling company Petco’s largest contracted recycler, Extrupet, has aligned itself with the Zero Plastics to Landfill by 2030 initiative following the launch of its Bottle-to-Bottle Recycling Plant, in Wadeville, Germiston, last week.
The new facility will supply an additional 14 000 t of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin a year to the PET packaging industry and will eventually divert an additional 22 000 metric tons of postconsumer PET bottles a year from landfills. In this way, jobs can be created and landfill space can be saved, which is in line with the Waste Amendment Act’s objective.
In the last decade, Petco has increased PET recycling rates in South Africa from 16% in 2004 to 49% by the end of 2014. This rate is set to rise in 2015, with a target of 50% being chased.
Moreover, the facility will also allow Petco to meet its recycling target of 70% by 2022, which is an estimated growth amounting to 170 000 t of PET bottles being recycled.
Acknowledging the facility as being a milestone in the drive towards increasing the recycling rate, Hanekom draws on statistics released by the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation last year on behalf of Plastics SA to emphasise the need to continue recycling initiatives in order to reach the 2030 target.
“Since 2009, the amount of [plastic products] manufactured in South Africa has increased by 34% to 1.4-million tons a year. In 2013, 20% of the plastic waste produced was recovered and recycled either locally or internationally. This amounts to 280 000 t of plastic being diverted from landfill, which reflects a 4.1% increase on the previous year,” he says.
Moreover, Hanekom points out that almost 80% of plastic waste recycled in South Africa during 2013 was derived from plastic packaging, resulting in an 8.9% increase from 2012. However, the industry failed to reach its 40% recycling rate target in 2013, which, he notes, was as a result of the economic recession in 2013.
This has also led to a 10.6% decrease since 2012 in formal employment created through plastic recycling. Of the 4 510 formal jobs supported by the plastics recycling industry in 2013, 7.7% were contract workers. These workers were involved in the sorting of waste on a full-time basis and were paid for their output and did not earn a set wage for time spent on the job.
Additionally, the research indicates that the amount of plastic waste collected from households and businesses in 2013 increased, with recyclables sourced from landfills and other postconsumer sources also having increased from 59% in 2012 to 66% in 2013.
The Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa (Redisa) says that exploring ways in which plastics can create a circular economy through collaboration between the public and private sectors can assist the plastics industry in reaching its target.
“By involving all stakeholders, government and the private sector, the Redisa tyre industry circular-economy model is working,” says Redisa director Stacy Davidson.
She adds that tyre manufacturers and importers are taking responsibility for their waste without losing sight of focusing on their core business; unemployed people are finding gainful employment as small, medium-sized and micro- enterprises are being developed and supported by the Redisa integrated industry waste-tyre management plan (IIWTMP); and the significant environmental threat that waste tyres represent is effectively being addressed.
The Redisa IIWTMP, approved by Molewa in 2012, states that tyre producers (manufacturers and importers) are charged a waste management fee of R2.30, excluding VAT, on every kilogram of new tyre rubber produced. The funds collected are then used to develop and support the collectors, storage depots, recyclers and secondary industries that manufacture other products from recycled output.
Davidson indicates that the principle of recycling and reusing waste is a solution for not only waste tyres but also other waste streams, such as packaging and general waste. “This can help Plastics SA to deal with the plastic waste issue.”
Moreover, the Minister indicated during the summit that the National Environmental Waste Amendment Act of 2014 aimed to increase institutional capacity for managing waste streams and put mechanisms in place for the proper pricing of waste.
“This amendment outlines the method for the pricing of waste streams to ensure that funds are collected to promote the recycling economy. We all agree that diverting waste from landfill sites requires infrastructure, which must be funded,” she stated.
Therefore, Molewa noted, government had to intervene to put mechanisms in place for the provision and coordination of this infrastructure and ensure that South Africa started to capitalise on the benefits of waste management.
Promoting Local Market
Plastics SA sustainability director Douw Steyn mentions that the plastics industry is also considering the stimulation of economic growth by increasing exports and replacing imported plastic products with locally manufactured products that can be manufactured from recycled and reused plastic waste. This will not only be in line with the goals of the NDP but also promote the local plastics industry.
“South Africa has a relatively small plastics market with no strong ‘Buy Local’ drive from consumers. Therefore, we are working on increasing exports into Africa as part of our regional integration strategy, which will enable the plastics industry to take advantage of markets,” he explains.
Steyn points out that, over the past 15 years, plastic imports from Asia, particularly China, India and South Korea, have increased signifi- cantly, resulting in the closing down of local plastics manufacturing businesses, such as medical syringe manufacturers.
He says imported plastic products from Asia are significantly cheaper, but lack the quality of and are of a lower standard than those manufactured locally.
However, Steyn says, because consumers are under financial pressure, they often select the cheapest option, which impacts on the local industry, as more imported products result in fewer jobs in South Africa.
Owing to the increase in plastic imports, Plastics SA is also focusing on improving innovation and skills development in the industry.
“We need to be more creative with regard to the type of products we manufacture in South Africa,” he states, adding that most plastic products are commodities, such as bottles and bags, and that there is a lot of local competition regarding the manufacturing of these products.
“As a result, we need to think about how niche products can be created so that they can be exported. In so doing, value is added on the locally produced product, which is linked to skills development,” Steyn explains.
Although the industry will consider recycling as the first choice of dealing with plastic waste, Plastics SA has also considered the waste-to-energy recovery option, which can help save natural resources, he says.
“Also, this can support the objectives of saving landfill space, reducing litter, saving energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” he concludes.
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“That is what’s missing in South Africa,” she says. “In Holland, due to the lack of space, recycling is a necessity. We can’t do without it. I remember how we used to go to the recycling depot as kids to trade in our newspapers for cash. We grew up being recycling-conscious.”
It’s not the same in South Africa. “Here space isn’t an issue, so people simply dig a hole and that becomes their new dumping site.” Vuyk’s company collects 100 tons of recyclable cardboard and 10 tonnes each of plastic and paper every month – an indication that Newcastlers are keen on recycling. But South Africans in general still have a long way to go.
“It’s all about making a conscious choice to create less waste and dispose of recyclable waste in the right way. If every person, in every household can commit to this, we will soon have a cleaner society – and save on resources,” says Vuyk.
Recycled material is an excellent fibre resource for the manufacturing of new products. The cardboard waste from Sappi’s network of agents re-enters the manufacturing cycle to produce containerboard for the packaging industry. Sappi Cape Kraft Mill in the Western Cape, for example, uses 100% recycled fibre in its production of linerboard and fluting medium. The mill uses approximately 67,000 tons of waste paper a year. Sappi‘s Enstra Mill in Gauteng also uses recycled paper in the making of linerboard, while the Tugela (KwaZulu-Natal) and Ngodwana Mills (Mpumalanga) use a percentage of paper waste in its production processes.
But much more waste could re-enter the production chain across a number of industries, including paper, glass, plastic, aluminium, ink and toner cartridges and computer consumables. All it takes is consumers who are passionate about recycling.