Microplastics and nanoplastics everywhere: If nothing is done to prevent it, the amount of plastic trash flowing into the oceans each year is expected to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons. Currently, plastic waste is entering the ocean at a rate of about 11 million metric tons a year, where it is harming marine life and damaging habitats.
The world produces 400 million tons of plastic every year. Less than 10 per cent is recycled and the rest ends up incinerated, dumped in landfill or in the ocean and other ecosystems. One of the most concerning aspects of plastic pollution are microplastics (particles smaller than 5 mm in diameter) and nanoplastics (less than 0.001mm). Scientists estimate that 14 million tons of these tiny particles now reside in the ocean floor.
As yet, the health impacts of plastics and their chemical additives are not fully understood. However, research is increasingly showing how pervasive microplastics and nanoplastics are: “Scientists have found microplastics everywhere they have looked: in deep oceans; in Arctic snow and Antarctic ice; in shellfish, table salt, drinking water and beer; and drifting in the air or falling with rain over mountains and cities.” – Nature.com | 4th May 2021
A coordinated global response: It is undeniable that we have a crisis and that – despite countless volunteer efforts to cleanup and many of us ‘doing our bit’ to cut down plastic pollution by recycling and reducing single-use items – we are not winning this battle, which clearly cannot be won until there is a coordinated global response. There are signs that such an initiative is taking shape in the form of a new, proposed global UN Treaty to tackle the plastic crisis and that support for it is growing internationally.
South Africa is a major contributor to plastic pollution: In November 2020, the Guardian reported that more than two-thirds of UN member states, including African, Baltic, Caribbean, Nordic and Pacific states, as well as the EU, have declared they are open to considering the option of a new agreement. The treaty would be akin to the Paris Climate Agreement or the Montreal Protocol to prevent ozone depletion. As yet however, the US and the UK, the two biggest per capita plastic waste producers, have yet to signal their participation.
Closer to home in June, a confidential draft position paper by the Dept. of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) revealed that the South African government does not intend to support the new treaty on plastics either. This is of great concern as South Africa is a major contributor to plastic pollution. In Africa, South Africa is ranked third after Egypt and Nigeria and is the eleventh worst offender globally in terms of land-based sources of plastic litter entering the sea. It is also way behind a number of other African countries in passing legislation to reduce plastics, especially single use.
Environmental organisations concerned about SA’s no-show: Greenpeace Africa, groundWork and WWF have expressed disappointment and deep concern at South Africa’s ‘no-show’ at a ministerial meeting on the proposed global plastics treaty. In a press release on 2 September, 2021 Greenpeace Africa stated: “The South African government has until February 2022 to reconsider its stance when deliberations on the negotiating mandate for a new global treaty for addressing plastic pollution will commence at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA).
Niven Reddy (African coordinator for Break Free From Plastic and campaign researcher for groundWork) says research shows that waste reuse, repair and refill sectors create 200 times more employment opportunities than current disposal systems: “Government’s unwillingness to provide moral leadership also ignores the potential employment opportunities in shifting away from single-use plastic. If our government is really serious about addressing both the plastic and unemployment crises then we need it to take bolder steps away from single-use plastic and incentivise the move to refill and reuse.”
Greenpeace Africa says that, to date, over 10 000 people have added their names to its national petition urging the government to put people before profits by supporting the global effort to curb plastic pollution. This is in addition to over 2 million signatories and a number of companies, including financial institutions, that have called for a global treaty under WWF’s global call for a new global agreement to address plastic pollution.
Sign the petition and Vote Out Plastic: Our Government Must Support Global Plastic Treaty
Failure to take measures to prevent and reduce plastic pollution: In May 2020, Greenpeace reported that: “Out of 54 [African] states, 34 have either passed a law banning plastics and implemented it or have passed a law with the intention of implementation. Of those, 16 have totally banned plastic bags or have done so partially without yet introducing regulations to enforce the bans.” Rwanda and Kenya lead the way in tough legislation.
In October 2019, Rwanda became the first country in Africa to implement a ban on all single-use plastics while Kenya’s ban on the use of single-use plastics in protected areas came into effect in June 2020. By comparison, South Africa’s efforts to curb and manage its plastic pollution amount to a 25 cent levy on plastic carry bags, banning ‘thin’ plastic bags, plus newly introduced plastic bag regulations from April 2021 that aim to have 100 percent recycled material in plastic bags by 2027… this while other countries on the continent are completely phasing out plastic bags, and other single use items.
In the aftermath of the devastating KZN floods in April 2019, Durban’s harbour and beaches were smothered in plastic – more shocking evidence than ever of how utterly South Africa has failed to take adequate measures to prevent plastic pollution and protect its environment. It is of crucial importance therefore, that South Africa not only follows the example of other African countries but lends its weight in support of these efforts, and gets behind the proposed global treaty as many environmental groups are urging.
Contribution to climate change: As a product of the petrochemical industry, plastics are also a big contributor to climate change, not just by way of carbon emissions but because plastic waste is impacting on the ocean’s ability to store carbon. It has been widely reported that the oil and gas companies – as a way to hedge against a falling demand for fossil fuels – have been seeking ways to increase profits by making more plastic. Should they succeed in this objective, it will have dire consequences for the climate and the environment. As of 2019, petrochemicals for plastic manufacture accounted for 14 percent of oil use with the expectation that this will increase to driving half of oil demand growth by 2050. Global emissions linked to plastics amounted to just under 900 million tons of carbon dioxide p.a. in 2019, potentially reaching 1.3 billion tons by 2030 if nothing is done to prevent it. This is as much as almost 300 coal-fired power plants, according to a CIEL report ‘Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’.
A May 2021 report by Plastic Waste Makers Index states:“The plastics industry has been allowed to operate with minimal regulation and transparency for decades. Government policies, where they exist, tend to focus on the vast number of businesses that sell finished plastic products. Relatively little attention has been paid to the smaller number of companies at the base of the supply chain that make ‘polymers’ – the building blocks of all plastics – almost exclusively from fossil fuels. These companies are the source of the single-use plastic crisis: their production of new ‘virgin’ polymers from oil, gas and coal feedstocks perpetuates the take-make-waste dynamic of the plastics economy. The economies of scale for fossil-fuel-based production are undermining transition to a ‘circular’ plastic economy …”
Code red for humanity: The recently released IPCC report shows global heating is widespread, rapid and intensifying, with extreme weather such as floods and wildfires becoming more commonplace. It states unequivocally that the only hope of stabilising global temperatures within 20 to 30 years, is for strong urgent action to bring about an immediate reduction in CO2; emissions and other greenhouse gases. See: Daily Maverick article | 06 August 2021
- Plastic carbon emissions CIEL report ‘Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’
- Plastic pollution that has washed down the uMngeni River covers the beach at Blue Lagoon, Durban. Photo: Willem Deyzel
- Durban Harbour, November 2019 Photo: Johnny Vassilaros
- Greenpeace Africa Petition: Cast your vote if you feel the South African government should support a Global Plastic Treaty
Stop producing virgin plastic: “All of the scientific peer reviewed studies on plastic pollution demonstrate without a single doubt that the only way to reduce the amount of plastic that goes into the environment requires a reduction of the production of virgin plastics.” – David Azoulay of CIEL
Plastic is a growing threat to the Earth's climate: “The plastic pollution crisis that overwhelms our oceans is also a significant and growing threat to the Earth’s climate. At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C. With the petrochemical and plastic industries planning a massive expansion in production, the problem is on track to get much worse” – CIEL
Extended Producer Responsibility: The term Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was introduced in the early 90s. It was intended to provide incentives for manufacturers to design products that were more reusable and recyclable. EPR is now being applied as a policy approach that aims to reduce waste production and decrease the total environmental impact of a product by making the manufacturer responsible for its entire life-cycle.
The circular economy entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles: Eliminate waste and pollution; Keep products and materials in use; Regenerate natural systems.