Recycling the same argument: Industry defends plastic bags
Plastics SA says the solution to plastic pollution does not lie in banning bags. Others beg loudly to differ
Moves by retailers and shopping malls to ban plastic shopping bags are simplistic, rash, “emotional” responses to a complex problem, says Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom.
“Many of those championing a ban on plastic shopping bags fail to understand the impact that alternative materials have on the environment, and that inadequate waste management and recycling infrastructure lie at the root of the problem,” he said.
Citing a 2018 study by the Danish ministry of environment and food, Hanekom said the research found that “so-called” alternatives would have a far greater negative environmental effect than plastic bags.
The study had found that organic cotton shopping bags would have to be reused “a staggering 20,000 times to have the same low environmental impact as plastic shopping bags”.
“While it’s tempting to imagine a world without plastic as some sort of environmental utopia, the hard truth is that most plastic products are life-enhancing, useful and – if disposed of correctly – more environmentally friendly than their touted alternatives. And this is where the solution to plastic pollution can be found: in the correct disposal and management of plastic waste,” said Hanekom.
To win the war on plastic pollution, Plastics SA said producers of plastic products, brand owners, retailers, shopping malls, the government and consumers had to face reality.
“In 2017 the plastics industry collected more than 43% of packaging placed on the market for recycling, with less than 700,000 tons going to landfill. The industry is showing year-on-year increases in the recycling rate with less plastic waste going to landfills, but industry’s efforts alone are not going to win the war on plastic pollution.
“The correct disposal and management of plastic waste is imperative for our future environmental sustainability. We need the government to urgently fix SA’s inadequate waste management facilities and improve infrastructure for collection and recycling.
“It can create thousands of new jobs while safeguarding the 100,000 formal and informal jobs that the plastics industry currently provides,” said Hanekom.
But Niven Reddy of environment justice organisation groundWork said Plastics SA would “obviously point fingers at alternatives being worse for the environment because they will always protect their own interest.
“I do not think they have considered the full life cycle of the impacts producing plastic has. Plastic is derived from coal, oil and gas and that makes plastic a major contributor to climate change and has severe health impacts on fenceline communities and those affected by climate change globally.”
Reddy said the only way to solve the plastic crisis is to stop producing so much plastic, and banning plastic bags to allow consumers to start thinking more about reducing and reusing.
“People rarely reuse the same plastic bag when they go shopping, but if our retailers banned them, and if they are not being produced, we will create a sustainable culture of reuse. By eliminating plastic bags as an option, we have already begun a path towards producing less plastic.
“Banning plastic bags is an important first step – we need to then move towards banning single-use plastic items altogether. These are items such as straws and sachets which are effectively designed to be disposed – that is dangerously inconsiderate for our environment and health.”
While communities were doing regular cleanups and saying no to straws and plastic bags, their efforts would go nowhere without accountability from plastic producers and corporations, said Reddy. “Only 9% of all plastic produced has been recycled, while the amount of plastic that is produced every day continues to rise.”