The plastics crisis

 The plastics crisis

At the second Ocean Cluster session, held in July 2021, the focus was on one of the themes that had emerged in the first session: the impact of plastics on the marine environment.


The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods was the theme for World Ocean Day 2021. It explored how human activity impacts life underneath our oceans, and how this in turn impacts on the millions who earn their living off the ocean. Our Ocean Cluster session in June drew from this, and focused on the implications of human-wildlife adjacency.

Among the themes that emerged was our management of plastic waste. The vision of a world free of plastic waste became a logical theme for the next Ocean Cluster session during Plastic-Free July.

We fully appreciate that the ocean’s plastics problems begin on land.

The session set out to explore the ocean plastics landscape, including innovations that could be initiated, and interventions that could be prototyped on the precinct to build on and contribute to global thinking.

Inputs included insights from the Waterfront’s waste management lead, Petro Myburgh; fishing group Oceana’s Vivian Malatji; ocean activist Diony Lalieu; and the World Wildlife Fund’s Lorren De Kock.

Managing plastic in a ‘closed’ environment

The Waterfront’s formal commitment to evolving into a plastics-free precinct began four years ago.

The trigger was the 2017 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. Its sustainability programme that year focused on single-use plastics, and included a summit in each of the Race’s stopover ports. At the Cape Town summit, the Waterfront’s CEO, David Green, made a pledge that by the time the Race came back to Cape Town, the Waterfront would be a significantly more plastics-free precinct.

The Waterfront then went on a journey – We are Breaking Up with Plastics – with its tenants, and although there was a meeting of minds and some successes, equally there were many barriers.

The Waterfront’s experience indicates the challenges in transitioning away from single-use plastic include:

  • Change resistance, including from manufacturers
  • Lack of awareness
  • Weak legislation, enforcement and negative reinforcers
  • Lack of cost-effective alternatives

Nevertheless, work continues. Projects and campaigns include:

The Waterfront has its own Waste Recovery Centre, and campaigns among its tenant base for organic waste separation. It collaborates widely in research and other initiates around different forms of waste management.

A big leap forward will come in the establishment in the medium term of a pyrolysis (waste-to-energy) plant for the disposal of plastics that have little recycling value, and other waste.

Fishing waste

Blue Continent Products, part of the Oceana Group, is a fishing company working in South African waters, with a processing facility at the Waterfront. Its Environmental Officer Vivian Malatji told the Cluster that company policy aligns to Annexure 5 of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which speaks to garbage management on fishing vessels, and specifically prohibits disposal of plastics into the ocean. It also aligns to South Africa’s Environmental Management Waste Act. All vessels therefore carry a waste management plan book and a garbage record book, which is routinely verified. Were this true of every fishing vessel plying the world’s waters, a great deal of the problem would be resolved.

Oceana has other initiatives: on board vessels, waste plastics are upcycled into dustpans and waste skips, for example; and in 2015 Blue Continent Products found an innovative outlet for fishing nets that could no longer be repaired: schools sports’ programmes.

This discussion prompted significant inputs into the chat: participants referred to Net-Works, and to a US programme for end-of-life fishing gear, Net Your Problem.

Partnering with restaurants

Ocean activist Diony Lalieu founded Ocean Pledge, a restaurant programme to eliminate single-use plastics. Covid lockdowns have meant the programme has been put on hold until restaurants are back on their feet, but it’s very promising: similar plastic-free programmes in the US showed that the potential annual cost saving per restaurant is in the realm of R57 000 a year, and 37 000kg of plastic waste.

The Waterfront hopes to participate in proof-of-concept research to identify impact within the South African context. This research project, involving 15-20 restaurants in the first year, is expected to save over R1 million for the restaurants and one million kilograms of plastic.

The programme criteria will include:

  • No plastic or PLA straws
  • Utensils for take-out meals provided only when asked for; made from bamboo
  • No polystyrene
  • No plastic bags offered for take-out orders
  • No sweets with individual wrappers

Ocean Pledge has created digitised education programmes for restaurant staff, and the restaurants involved will also receive benefits, and be badged at three levels of evolution into being plastic-free.

Look out for it.


WWF initiated the SA Plastics Pact around two years ago and is now a supporting member. The Plastics Pact is now hosted and led by GreenCape, which convenes stakeholders across the value chain to find solutions and meet ambitious targets.

WWF remains involved in the anti-plastic-waste drive on national, regional, and global scales, said Lorren de Kock, the project manager for WWF-SA’s Circular Plastics Economy Programme.

Today’s economic model is based on unlimited growth and consumption, Lorren pointed out: it is flawed in that it supports the linear model of extraction, sales, use and disposals. The transition from a linear to a circular economy is not just about material substitution and behaviour change, it is about changing our economic model. This transition can hold much promise and many benefits, from both environmental and socio-economic perspectives.


In breakaway groups, lively discussions explored the overarching questions of what could additionally be developed and tested in the Waterfront to make a measurable difference.

There was a strong theme of education and awareness: the better the general understanding is of the complexity of the plastics landscape, the better equipped all would be to manage themselves. In the chat, mention was made of the value of building communities that care, such as the Beach Co-op.

Another theme related to responsiveness: how might businesses drive better behaviour among their staff and clients?

And the third theme related to the need for innovation. There is plenty of this going around, such as the upcycling of plastic by the Centre for Regenerative Design and Collaboration (CRDC) into building material; and some of the initiatives in the cohort in the Ocean Hub Africa accelerator.

In innovation, as always, joining the dots is critical in order to scale.