Modern life is unimaginable without plastic. Lightweight and durable, it’s infinitely useful and is everywhere – in our homes and workplaces, our public spaces, our landfills, and – perhaps most disconcertingly – in our oceans. Estimates are that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish.
Plastic pollution has a devastating impact on marine eco-systems. Turtles, birds and other sea creatures mistake bags and other plastic debris for food and choke on it, are suffocated by it, or starve to death as they can’t digest it. Particularly insidious are microplastics – pieces smaller than 5mm in length – which are ingested by fish and ultimately find their way into our food.
Though a relatively small part of the problem (other single-use packaging is a much bigger contributer to pollution), shopping bags are a very visible reminder of our addiction to plastic. Estimates vary, but the figure bandied about is somewhere between 4 and 8 billion plastic bags produced annually in South Africa. The number itself is disconcerting, but what’s even more troubling is that the bags aren’t being widely recycled, they’re ending up in landfill.
What does the law say?
Plastic bag legislation was first introduced in South Africa in 2003. Government adopted a two-pronged approach. It enforced the manufacture of thicker bags to replace the flimsy ‘national flower’ that could be seen littering our landscape (it was also hoped the thicker bags would encourage re-use). And it introduced a plastic bag tariff, to discourage their use.
In 2004 a manufacturing levy of 4c (now 8c) was introduced – the money collected was meant to be used for the creation of buy-back centres and recycling facilities. Buyisa-e-Bag, a non-profit organisation, was set up to manage the process, but failed to fulfil it’s mandate and was wound up in 2011.
Controversy continues to swirl around the nearly R1.3 billion collected in levies since 2004. Representatives in the plastic industry say it’s become a green tax that goes straight into government coffers (the money is not ring-fenced, so the DEA has to apply to access the funds). Annabe Pretorius, an independent consultant in the industry, says “the plastics industry has approached the government for funds to help with recycling on various occasions, through different bodies, and so far we have got zero.”
Where are our bags ending up?
John Kieser, the Sustainability Manager for Plastics SA, explains that there is a market for post-consumer (used) plastic bags – they can be recycled into irrigation pipes or granulated and re-made into plastic bags or black bags. But the reality is, they aren’t being collected and recycled, because – quite simply – they’re not a high-value recycling item. He says “The reason you see all those bags flying about out there is because there is no demand for them.” Because they’re very light, it’s difficult to collect enough of them to get the tonnage required to make recycling them viable, he explains.
Steven Cheetham of Atlantic Recycling has been at the coalface of the plastics recycling industry for 30 years and also spoke about the low recycling rate of plastic bags. “Waste collectors don’t pick the plastic bags because recyclers aren’t buying them – there’s no weight in them. They’re also problematic to recycle. They’re very thin so tend to fold in the washing process, and they’re hard to dry.”
But the biggest problem, according to Cheetham, is the high percentage of calcium carbonate (essentially chalk) that’s added to the bags. “Virgin polymer is based on the oil price and when oil went to a hundred dollars the price of polymer shot through the roof. So to reduce the price of the end product – the bag – manufacturers put calcium carbonate in, which is half the price of virgin polymer. So it’s a huge saving to the manufacturer, and to the brand owner,” he explained.
Why is this cost-cutting a problem for recyclers such as Cheetham? He explains the science behind it. “We wash plastic and it floats because it’s got a 0.9 density, so any paper or sand or stone will sink. Anything with a density less than 1 will float. The minute you put calcium carbonate in, it goes over that and it doesn’t float anymore. It sinks to the bottom of our tank along with the mud – we have to throw it away, it goes to landfill. And we’ve paid for it, so it’s a loss to our company.”
He’s angered by what he calls ‘green washing’ on the part of retailers. It’s good for business to be perceived as green, so retailers print messages on the bags urging consumers to recycle them – despite the fact that the increasing levels of filler (and of ink) being added makes them hard to recycle.
Plastic bags – a money spinner?
Cheetham believes retailers are making money off the bags. “It’s their biggest selling single line item. They’ve got their spin doctors on it the whole time so the consumer doesn’t actually know what’s cooking.”
Retailers can charge what they want but the average price consumers pay for a bag is 50c. According to Pretorius, each bag costs 25c to make. On top of that, 8c goes towards the manufacturing levy. Who profits from the remaining 17c per bag is unclear. Retailers insist it’s a break-even situation with no clear profits for them.
Hayley McLellan, environmental campaigner and founder of ‘Rethink the Bag’ deals a lot with the major retailers and says “In terms of a plastic bag ban, retailers just want to know they’re not going to lose feet through the door due to a perceived inconvenience to the customer. They also want to know what the alternatives are; they are concerned it will cost them more. But in fact, retailers could have reusable bags made locally – benefitting both them and local communities. Win win and a win for the environment!”
Retailers do seem loathe to get rid of the bags. One said they’d need a clearer indication of how consumers would react and another believes it could have a chaotic outcome, because when trialled, they had strong push back from customers who demanded they be given a bag.
Which begs the question – where are we, the consumers, in all this? If the levy is being mismanaged, our bags aren’t being recycled and are clogging up our landfills and polluting our seas after their short trip home from the grocery store, shouldn’t we rethink them?
Assuming our leaders lack the political will to ban the bags, our retailers are too invested in them to make any changes and recycling them is fraught with challenges, is the onus not on individuals to do something? At which point, it’s time to fess up. I only recently stopped buying plastic bags. I’d bought the re-useable ones years ago but was quite lukewarm in my attempts and could never get into the habit of carrying them around with me. It just comes down to awareness. At some point, when the busyness of modern life subsides, you read a statistic or see an image that stays with you or spend a morning walking on an infuriatingly littered beach and you realise that if you’re part of the problem you can be part of the solution.
It’s not unlike the recent Stikeez scenario – people reacted strongly and lambasted Pick ‘n Pay for their irresponsibility. I don’t think we should let Pick ‘n Pay off the hook, but retailers are profit driven, and can we truly blame them for giving customers what they want? We’re the ones that create the demand by being complacent and giving in to our nagging kids. Likewise, if shoppers keep buying plastic shopping bags, we are condoning the norm of supplying them.
Stemming the tide
Dr Robertson-Andersson of the UKZN’s MACE lab has been studying the impact of microplastics on our oceans. As she points out, every piece of plastic dumped in our oceans still exists, it just eventually breaks down into micoplastics. She shared some alarming statistics on marine pollution – estimates are that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square km of ocean, or, put another way, over 3 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean.
But we can stem the tide. Here are a few small tweaks you can make that will help keep plastic debris out our oceans:
- Use reusable shopping bags. Or re-use your plastic shopping bag as many times as possible.
- Avoid or cut back on single-use packaging. Ditch the straws, steer clear of individually wrapped sweets and heavily-packaged groceries, invest in re-usable coffee cups and water bottles.
- Use the power of your wallet. A growing problem are plastic micro-beads added to cosmetics. They get washed down the basin, into our rivers and ultimately, our oceans. Dr Robertson-Andersson says “South Africa has some of the best legislation in the world, we have to state what’s in every product. And because we do, as a consumer, we can choose whether to buy products that contain plastics or not. All you need to do is turn the product over and take a few seconds to read the ingredients.”
Just as you check snacks for ‘E’ ingredients, here’s a list of plastic-containing ingredients to look out for in toiletries and cosmetics:
–Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
What do you think? Should South Africa follow the lead of countries such as Rwanda and Bangladesh and ban the bag?
It’s a complex issue with many stakeholders, each with vested interests which they vehemently defend. Those who support a ban on the bag point to the environmental havoc they cause. Those who take a more moderate line argue that plastic recycling creates jobs and that the plastic bags are a valuable source of recyclate. And then there’s the delicate balancing act of ensuring we don’t replace one problem with another – some would argue for instance that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic ones.
It’s certainly an issue that can’t be dealt with in isolation – tackling it will be a huge collaborative effort. Until then, our part is to help keep them out our landfills and our oceans.