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18 Mar 2019

Banning plastic may not be the solution to pollution woes

(The Citizen) Picture: Global Recycling Day seeks to make consumers more responsible in getting rid of waste. Image: Twitter/@dermikelpUK

Even if we successfully implement alternatives to plastic, current consumer behaviour indicates that this will be discarded irresponsibly anyway.

Anti-plastic sentiments abound in light of the amount of pollution affecting numerous ecosystems, both on land and in our oceans. Interesting counter-arguments challenging theories about plastic have emerged, and are discussed below, as today is Global Recycling Day.

In December last year, The Wall Street Journal said that the bottled water industry has faced mass consumer backlash, with calls to ban disposable plastic in zoos and department stores. In response to the article, the president of The Packaging Management Institute in the US, Ben Miyares, disproved the fact that plastic pollution should take all the blame. “Bottlers and their suppliers are not the culprits, intentionally or inadvertently discarding plastic waste. They alone shouldn’t be held culpable for it, nor responsible for its mediation.”

The problem, he said, was a universal one, and blaming bottlers and plastic manufacturers will not remedy this. He questioned the fact that no alternatives had been successfully implemented, and even if innovations were implemented, these plastic alternatives would most likely also be dumped unsustainably.

To add to Myer’s discussion, an interesting anti-plastic counter-argument has been put forward by South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) executive director Charlotte Metcalf.  Metcalf does not dispute that plastic is one of the world’s major pollutants, or that alternatives are a tentative solution, but maintains that banning or adopting “unproven and untested alternatives” to plastic may not be the best solution to the world’s polluting woes.

In order to find a viable solution that will discourage people from polluting the planet, the truth of plastic alternatives needs to be discussed. If we don’t find the truth and maintain some balance in replacing plastic with another product, “we risk setting policies, formulating regulations, enacting legislation and investing in technologies that will do more harm than good”.

Oxo-biodegradable plastics

Oxo-biodegradable plastics are conventional polyolefin plastics which have small amounts of metal salts added to them to mimic biodegradation. Metcalf said that the additives only helped with fragmenting the materials, which actually only broke down the plastic into tiny pieces that remained in the environment to be consumed by animals. This, therefore, does little to eradicate plastic in the environment.

Shop floor or counter-top filling stations

This refers to companies that refill containers with either filtered, treated, or non-treated waters, often inside shopping outlets. As much as these companies claim their water is of a superior quality, research from the UK disproves this, estimating that “drinking from a refillable water bottle can be many times worse than licking your dog’s bowl”, referring to the bacteria build-up involved in refilling bottles.

Metcalf also challenges these alternatives as being a way to combat ongoing drought conditions throughout South Africa. Most systems source their water from municipalities, which actually exacerbates already strained water supplies, and their “quality” water claims, which involve cleaning and sterilisation cycles, consume a large amount of water as well.

Substituting plastic with glass or tin

Metcalf argues that using alternative materials such as glass and tins will not be sustainable or safe as a solution to decreasing the industry’s reliance on Polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  Trucost, a company in the US that assists companies in understanding environmental issues in terms of business, has estimated that substituting plastic with alternatives that perform the same function would actually increase environmental costs by a staggering $414 billion.

In addition, because plastic waste sits at a higher environmental cost per kilogram when compared to alternatives, more than four times more alternative material is required to perform the same function as plastic. In figures, over 342 megatonnes of alternative material will be needed to replace the 84 megatonnes of plastic used in consumer products and packaging in 2015.

Although these figures may seem arbitrary, this will have a negative impact for the environment in terms of manufacturing and distribution.

Plastic recycling is growing in SA

Metcalf says that, according to the figures released by Plastics SA, recycling plastic has grown for seven consecutive years, with over 334,737 tons recycled back into raw material.

“This gives South Africa an input recycling rate of 43.7% – well above that of Europe’s recycling rate that currently sits at 31.1%.”

An important factor to consider in terms of eradicating plastic is also the scale of job creation as a direct result of plastic recycling. Plastics SA says that an estimated 5,837 formal jobs were created in recycling factories in 2017 alone. The informal sector is booming, with PETCO estimating that 85% of their bottles collected for recycling is done by waste pickers. This comes to 64,000 income-generating opportunities created by plastic recycling.

“So I ask, what do you want to do? Switch to glass to rescue the amount of plastic used in South Africa but watch energy, carbon, and water footprints increase? Or use your plastic responsibly, recycle, and help retain 60,000 plus jobs?

“A holistic strategy that results in investing in solutions that encourage behaviour change, coupled with the implementation of considered, well-thought through new technologies, is much closer to the answer than outright bans,” Metcalf concluded.

(Press release issued on behalf of SANBWA)