How might we turn the tide on plastics?

 How might we turn the tide on plastics?

Reduce, reuse, recycle – these are the three “R”s of building a better world. But the global figure for plastics recycling is 1% (16% in South Africa, on generous calculations) so the focus is firmly on the first two.

Plastic has long been considered a significant polluter, though not “mission critical”. However, as a broader society, we are starting to understand its health impact both to human communities, and to the planet as a whole – specifically, the link between plastic pollution and climate change.

Here are some facts:

We know it’s bad, but how bad exactly?

South Africa sheds around 2 370 tonnes of plastic waste annually.

Most of this isn’t disposed of properly: the evidence is on verges and in trees and washed up on beaches all around us. But what we can’t see – microplastics – is where profound further damage sits.

Microplastics are everywhere. They are in table salt; they’re in the air you breathe. “We have never found a single water sample anywhere in the world that doesn’t have microplastics in it,” said Prof Tamara Galloway of the University of  Exeter in an FT Live Dialogue in the lead-in to COP26.

Microplastics come from plastics which have broken down into granules 5mm or less. The very qualities of durability that make plastic so useful mean it is nearly impossible to break them down fully. Cigarette filters are a big source of microplastics; so are textile fibres, and dust from vehicle tyres. Cleaning and personal products with “microgranules” are effectively a stream of microplastics. But any plastic – the stirrers and coffee cup lids we use without thinking, and the million plastic water bottles that are purchased every minute in the world – will break down, over time, and in the right circumstances.

The right circumstances include, of course, the action of sun and salt and waves and currents on the tonnes of plastic that end up in in the ocean.

The pandemic has reinforced that as fast as challenges and environmental conditions are understood and behaviours shifted (such as the move away from plastic straws), things change, and complexity grows. Covid introduced a lot of “new” plastics, such as newly plastic-wrapped utensils in restaurants, widespread use of pocket-sized plastic bottles of hand sanitisers, and disposable masks.

Masks are a significant problem. The plastics used to filter the air we breathe are complex and multilayered, and they don’t break down easily. “If only 1% of disposable masks used worldwide escape incineration in the clinical waste route,” said Prof Galloway, “you’ve still got about 400m tonnes of extra plastic.” 

The ear loops on masks also pose a threat to sea creatures that become entangled, and drown or strangle.

What’s the impact on human health?

Though it’s known we all have plastic additives in our bodies, it’s difficult to measure the impact of this, said Prof Galloway. Microplastics “are in human stool samples; they’re found in tissue in the colon – so we know they’re in our digestive systems.” They’re present in such volumes, in fact, that the UK government was moved to introduce legislation banning sewage from being delivered into rivers, and thence into the ocean. It’s about reducing the microplastic burden on the oceans.

Shockingly, research indicates that within the human body microplastics also cross the placenta, meaning even unborn babies are exposed. “In marine animal models research, we find effects in the immune system and subtle effects particularly with regard to energy levels,” Prof Galloway said.

“We know it’s probably not doing us much good.”

On another note, by clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic waste can increase the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria. Here plastic bags are a particular issue.

What’s the link between plastic pollution and climate change?

More than 99% of all plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal – dirty, non-renewable resources. The greenhouses gas emission associated with the production of plastics is vast, at almost 4% of total emissions: twice that of the aviation and shipping industries. If the current trajectory of carbon emissions continues, that figure is projected to be 15% by 2050.

Why is the impact so heavy?

Well, first there’s the mining and extraction of the resources used. The basic oil-based building blocks are shipped to plastic manufacturers, so there are transport emissions. The plastic resins that result from the refining process are also transported to the manufacturers who’ll make the final products. Finally, converting the resins into usable items generates GHGs, particularly carbon dioxide and methane. Some products like Styrofoam generate further harmful gaseous by-products.

At the end of its life, discarded plastic is recycled, is incinerated, or goes to landfill. Recycling requires energy and generates GHGs; and ordinary incineration releases the carbon stored in plastic into the atmosphere. Plastics that simply sit in landfill don’t add GHGs to the mix, but pose their own problems, taking years to break down. Plastic is a large part of the reason there are landfill “Day Zeroes” in many cities around the world – cities that have space crises as they look for ways to store the mountains of refuse we produce daily.

Why do we hear so much about ocean plastics?

South Africa sends an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste into the ocean each year. It is #11 on the list of the world’s big polluters of land-based plastic pollution into the oceans – in Africa, we are in the ignominious position of being #3, after Egypt and Nigeria.

Once plastic has gone into the ocean, it’s difficult to get it out. Much of it – it is thought some 90% – ultimately sinks to the bottom where it breaks up into component parts and microplastics, and becomes largely unrecoverable.

The V&A Waterfront’s Two Oceans Aquarium, and every other sea wildlife-focused organisation in the world, fights a seemingly losing battle against the impact of ocean plastics. November is Seal Month, and the launch of the short film Saving Seals today (November 25) powerfully tells the story of how these “Labradors of the sea” get into trouble, perhaps, collecting a noose of box tape or discarded fishing wire around their neck which steadily tightens and cuts into their flesh as they grow. The basking platforms built for seals at the Waterfront mean that afflicted seals who visit the Waterfront can be spotted and – sometimes in scenes reminiscent of James Bond sneaking silently into enemy territory while guards sleep – snipped free by divers gliding under the platforms while they loll unawares. The seals the programme identifies and saves is, sadly, just the tip of the iceberg: we have no view of or access to the millions of other sea creatures and seabirds afflicted in this way. See the short movie here.

The turtle rescue programme, too, is a constant reminder of how ocean creatures, mistaking microplastics for food, ingest them. The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation shares that in the 2021 “turtle stranding season” (sad that that is even a thing), 33 out of the 52 hatchlings rescued were recorded as having ingested microplastics. In all, 353 pieces of microplastic were collected, with the “plastic king”, known as hatchling #38, having excreted 46 pieces of plastic (this is a turtle smaller than your palm). Follow the Foundation on Instagram for a regular turtle update feed.

It’s critical to stop plastic before it gets to the ocean. Research published in the Breaking the Plastic Wave report (publ June 2020) indicates that without action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, to 29m tonnes a year, equivalent to 50kg of plastic per metre of coastline worldwide.

Governance considerations

Where does the buck stop? Or, to put it another way, who is going to pay for a better way of doing things?

That’s the question that gets raised in all conversations regarding better management of the plastics situation. Retailers, for instance, who operate in a highly price-competitive environment, are reluctant to pass any higher cost of less problematic packaging on to consumers.

It’s clear that there is no one single solution. Industry, government, civil society, academia, innovators and concerned individuals need to work together. But there is an important governance dimension: some solutions may exist in the laws and standards set by authorities and governing bodies. Recognising this, governments and industry leaders are stepping up with new policies and voluntary initiatives. However, these are often narrow in focus, or concentrated in low-leakage countries.

It should be cheaper to be good, and more expensive to be bad

Rt Hon John Gummer Lord Deben, in the FT Live plastics panel

Some options that are on the table in many countries are:

TAXES: The recycling of plastic is the smallest part of GHG emissions; the big cost comes with new plastics being made from virgin materials. There’s a global move to use the big stick of taxes to reduce the volumes of plastics entering the world by reducing “new” plastic production.

FULL DISCLOSURE: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. There is a strong argument that there should be full disclosure on the part of all businesses regarding how much plastic they put into the system.

EXTENDED PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY: Currently, producers of plastic and other goods externalise the cost of disposal of those materials at the end of their life. This cost is picked up by others, often by people who are among the world’s poorest  Extended producer responsibility makes the producer of anything responsible for managing it in its end-of-life phase.

It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem to be able to “bill”, for instance, fizzy drink manufacturers for the costs of managing the resultant mountains of plastic bottles. Scientists are already able to “fingerprint” oil spills to know where the oil comes from, and governments are thus able to identify and bill those responsible for the cost of the cleanup. If a similar “fingerprint” could be attached to plastics, which is quite feasible given the combination of additives that are added to different forms of plastic, this provides one of the mechanisms that could be brought to bear.

How does South Africa do?

Well, poorly. As the figures show, we don’t manage our plastic waste very well. It is therefore confusing that South Africa also imports plastic waste from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. It also imports plastic waste from China and Germany. Ostensibly, it does so to address a shortage of certain plastics – polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, polypropylene, and polyurethane.

While the responsible department, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) under Minister Barbara Creecy, says that all the imported plastic waste will be recycled and that the country’s systems are effective enough in “significantly reducing” plastic waste, especially plastic waste going into the ocean, past evidence is that up to 84% of imported plastic waste is not recycled, but needs to be disposed of in landfill or in some other way.

Minister Creecy and her department have been roundly criticised for South Africa’s non-participation in  September (2021) of the first international Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution. While around 120 countries supported the call for a new UN treaty on plastic pollution, Minister Creecy demurred, ostensibly pending the acceptance of the paper by the Cabinet. It’s been speculated that this position is informed by the potential profits that can accrue from the plastic waste trade.

What can we do?

Apart from the governance considerations listed above, and keeping up pressure on the government, corporates and our communities to do the right thing, there is much we can do personally or systemically, joining a groundswell of activism around the world of innovators and scientists, community initiatives and awareness-raising.

Recycle paper, glass, metal and plastics – and if there’s no recycling service in your area, work with like-minded people to get something set up.

Just quit. There’s a growing movement to have cigarette filters classified as single-use plastics. UK research indicates 90% of smokers don’t consider that it is littering to toss their finished cigarette wherever they happen to be; contrarily, US research found that even when smokers know they’re littering, 75% of them still toss their butts. As a result, 65% of cigarette filters become litter.

On its own, South Africa creates ±15bn cigarette butts a year. The  majority of these end up in the ocean, where the filter takes 10 to 15 years to fully degrade (as they break down, they may be mistaken for food and ingested by marine wildlife to the deep distress of the animal’s health). And while they are degrading, they are a chemical bomb, having captured the harmful chemicals originally present in the cigarette.

Make your statement. In sit-down restaurants, ask if an alternative to plastic straws are available. When you fetch your take-out coffee, take your own travel mug. Where possible, buy loose fruit and veg rather than pre-plastic-packaged, and speak about it in your supermarket if this isn’t an option.

Make better choices. Break up with bottled water: get a water filter, and carry your own in a reusable bottle. Take your own carry bags to supermarkets. In your daily interactions, be conscious of plastic use, and reduce it as much as humanly possible.

Where alternatives are available, choose them. These might include reusable glass bottles (a higher initial carbon footprint but over its lifetime a much lower impact), or bioplastics such as those made from sugar cane, corn starch or seaweed.

Separate your waste. One of the major reasons plastics go to landfill, is because they are contaminated with food, and cannot therefore be recycled. Wash your plastic before you pop it into the recycling. If you can, establish a wormery or compost bin at home where you can place your teabags and coffee grounds, eggshells and vegetable waste; you could even go all out and get a bokashi bucket which also takes meat products.

Initiatives we’re supporting

SOLVE@Waterfront is in extensive conversations, or have signed agreements, with some exciting like-minded initiatives. These include:

  • Ocean Hub Africa, a close collaborator and an accelerator for ocean-minded businesses. Amongst its alumni and cohort are a number of start-ups focusing strongly on addressing the plastic crisis. These include Captain Fanplastic,  which focuses on children’s plastic education; a Tanzanian eco-building company that focuses on plastic waste, Arena Recycling; a Nigerian upcycling form Givo; and a behaviour-change health insurance group Soso Care, also from Nigeria, which encourages plastic-consciousness through accepting recyclables in lieu of premiums.
  • We have joined a global movement driven by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation through committing to signing the SA Plastics Pact, which seeks to create a circular economy for plastic packaging. In South Africa, the initiative is held by GreenCape.
  • We’ve agreed in principle to run experiments with Ocean Pledge (payoff line: “Turning awareness into action”), whose focus is the power of individual choices to turn the tide on plastic.
  • We’re pretty far down the road (still, alas, with some distance to go) in our intention to establish a waste-to-energy plant, a.k.a a pyrolysis plant. The Waterfront’s attention is to dramatically reduce the amount of waste-to-landfill the precinct currently produces. The energy thus produced will go towards powering a desalination point, reducing the burden placed by the precinct on Cape Town’s water supply – a major boon when the next drought cycle comes.

In addition, there are some inspiring and innovative retailers based in the precinct: Sealand, Adidas’ ground-breaking new sustainable store, eco-committed Patagonia, and the upcycling creatives in the Watershed such as the Recycled Flip Flop Sculptures Studio, and others.

So where does that leave us?

“Everybody wants to do the right thing. We just need to make it easy for them.”

Our collective vision is not to eliminate plastic, but to eliminate excessive and careless use, especially secondary packaging and single-use items; and, where substitution is possible, to choose materials which have the lightest environmental consequences.

One stone at a time, we can move this mountain.