Woolies’ mammoth task: meet the workers helping to fight plastic

Ideas

Woolies’ mammoth task: meet the workers helping to fight plastic

A feel-good story of job satisfaction, reduction of plastic waste and, most importantly, preserving livelihoods

Consumer journalist
Isikhwama may be churning out 500,000 black carrier bags a week, but factory manager Anne Jacobs’s favourite made-from-recycled plastic carrier bag - produced in the same factory - is this pink schnauzer number.
IN THE BAG Isikhwama may be churning out 500,000 black carrier bags a week, but factory manager Anne Jacobs’s favourite made-from-recycled plastic carrier bag - produced in the same factory - is this pink schnauzer number.
Image: Supplied

I do so love a factory visit. 

I was 16 when I toured a commercial bread plant for the first time. Not with a school group — I tagged along with my friend and her mother, the formidable KZN-based consumer journalist Colleen Shearer, who had been invited to witness the process after taking up a consumer’s complaint about finding a foreign object in her loaf.

No doubt that fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse had a lot to do with my career choice. To this day I leap at the chance to see how things are produced and interact with the people who get the cars, infant formula, organic veggies, milk or made-from-plastic fabric to the factory exit.

2020 has not been a good year for that, of course, so my visit to a Cape Town bag factory last week was a biggie, in many ways. It’s an unassuming little black carrier bag, retailing for just R6.49 at Woolworths — and all its competitors are selling versions of it as an alternative to their “cheap” thin plastic bags —  but its story and its significance is huge.

Some Woolies customers have not appreciated being dragged into the retailer’s plans to phase out their yellowy-green single-use plastic carrier bags, and thus remove up to six tons of plastic a year from SA’s waste streams.

We’ve had a whole lot of “new normals” to get used to this year. For many Woolies’ customers, that includes not being able to buy those “single use” thin plastic bags any more. If you don’t take your own, you have to spend that R6.49 on one of those black carrier bags. It’s part of the bid to curb the severe environmental impact of single-use plastic, and it’s been the norm in several countries for some time.

Some Woolies customers have not appreciated being dragged into the retailer’s plans to phase out their yellowy-green single-use plastic carrier bags, and thus remove up to six tons of plastic a year from SA’s waste streams. “I didn’t budget for this,” is a common complaint from customers in the week a store stops selling them altogether. And, “not fair!”

The idea is to get shoppers to take their own reusable bags to the supermarket to stem the single-use plastic tide, of course; something government has been trying to encourage since 2003 when it put an end to free carrier bags. But for some reason, most consumers, both rich and poor, have carried on buying new carrier bags every time they shop. The “autopilot” way in which many cashiers grab the store-issue thin bags and scan them bears this out.

Woolworths trialled its “no single use plastic carrier bags” policy two years ago at its Steenberg store and added four more stores last year before going big this year, with 20 more stores joining the list in August and another 120 this month. That brings the grand total of thin bag-free stores to 145 — that’s about 20% of their stores countrywide.

This year’s dramatic roll-out has been a boon for Isikhwama, the BEE company which produces 95% of all Woolworths’s reusable bags from its factory in Montague Gardens in Cape Town. A decade ago the company was producing 20,000 coloured recycled plastic bags a week for Woolworths — now, thanks to the retailer’s fast-track phasing out of single-use plastic bags, that number stands at 500,000 a week. They recently moved to bigger premises, and employed 30 more people, bringing the staff complement to 148, many of them semi-skilled women from Khayelitsha, Du Noon and Atlantis, who had lost their jobs with the collapse of Cape Town’s clothing industry.

Then Covid-19 happened and for a while Isikhwama founder Jason Stroebel’s dream of reducing throwaway plastic and creating more jobs in the process looked set to be derailed. The company lost seven full weeks of production and 70% production over 16 weeks. The four big machines they had imported from China to meet their clients’ growing demand for those black carrier bags were delivered shortly before the March lockdown.

“Only three of them had been set up when the Chinese engineer was forced to leave the country, leaving us to try to figure the rest out on our own,” says Stroebel. “Rough times.” But all the workers kept their jobs, Stroebel deliberately choosing to limit the Chinese machines’ bag making functionality to allow for his workers to complete them by hand, and preserve jobs. If not for that, the bags would sell for less than R6.45, he says, but he and his client believe it’s a worthy trade-off.

When chatting to some of the plant workers, the word most of them uttered, independently, was “proud”. Proud to be playing their part in curbing single-use plastic waste, proud to be employed, and proud to see “their” bags being used by all sorts of South Africans in all sorts of ways.

A fantastically feel-good plastic story, for sure.