Coast KZN

16 Nov 2020

Plastic pollution crisis not simply a consumer issue

(South Coast Herald) Picture: WWF - Plastic ocean pollution - plastic bag and rubbish floating in ocean.

For too long the burden of plastic pollution has been laid at the door of consumers and individuals – with a heavy emphasis on awareness, recycling and clean-ups – but it is becoming increasingly clear that the problem of plastic in the environment needs to be tackled by all players. This is the view of Lorren de Kock, co-author of the newly released “WWF Plastics Facts & Futures Report“ which takes a comprehensive look at the issue in the South African context.

A case in point is the recent phenomenon of nurdles (a very small pellet of plastic which serves as raw material in the manufacture of plastic products) washing up on Cape beaches. While beach clean-ups are well-intentioned, they do not tackle the source of the problem.

“A situation like this should be similar to an oil spill where there are penalties and polluting companies are held to account,” said Ms de Kock.

Ms de Kock, who is Project Manager: Circular Plastics Economy with WWF South Africa, said: “With the price of virgin plastic at an all-time low, due to the falling oil price, and massive investment into virgin polymer production, virgin plastic is the cheapest material to procure. This is impacting on the recycling industry which has resulted in a lack of demand for recycled plastic materials.

“The reality is that plastic pollution is a complex societal issue requiring interventions at each stage of the lifecycle. These include the critical need for a reduction in production and consumption, substitution with alternative materials and delivery models such as reuse and refill, more investment and support for recycling and appropriate disposal at end of life.”

The comprehensive, 134-page WWF Plastics Facts & Futures Report, which was launched this week, is aimed at researchers, industry actors, policymakers and interested individuals. It explores the environmental and socio-economic impacts of plastic pollution, with a focus on plastic packaging as a major contributor. It also identifies plastic products beyond packaging that need to be given attention in South Africa, among them sanitary towels, nappies, cigarette butts and certain types of fishing gear, all of which are not currently well managed and add to plastic leakage into nature.

The report aims not only to consolidate the mounting evidence to highlight the risks of a business-as-usual path but also to identify first steps and levers to deliver significant positive impact in this complex system.

This complexity means that no single organisation can solve the plastic pollution challenge by itself and that an inclusive, collaborative process with multiple stakeholders across the plastics value chain is needed, with a strong focus on prevention rather than mitigating impacts once they have already occurred.

“Addressing the plastic pollution crisis must not be done at the expense of other increasing environmental problems, but if done right, it will result in net positive environmental outcomes for our planet across a range of environmental and social stressors,” said Ms de Kock.