Fighting our growing plastic problemThe truth of the matter is that very little of the plastic we produce is recycled. Here’s what we should be doing instead.Article by Miriam Mannak - 28 June 2019 - Read Time: 3 min
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Reduce and refuse

The world is drowning in plastic and microplastics (particles smaller than 5mm) are now found in everything from the water we drink to the food we eat.

A study by the Sky Ocean Rescue project in the UK found that 72% of crustaceans from six deep-sea trenches, the deepest parts of our oceans, have plastic in their guts. Things aren’t looking better further up the food chain either. In March 2019, a baby turtle cared for by Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium died because of plastic ingestion. Just weeks before, a dead whale washed up in the Philippines with 40kg of plastic in its stomach, followed by a dead sperm whale in Italy. The pregnant animal’s womb contained nearly 25kg of plastic along with her dead baby.

Humans and how we produce and consume what we use are to blame for this. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), South Africans use 30-50kg of single-use plastic per person per year. Based on our population of 54 million, that is equivalent to the weight of 4 800 to 8 000 Boeing 747s per year – and that’s for South Africa alone.

Recycling is not the (complete) answer

Recycling is unfortunately not the entire solution. In South Africa, 10% of plastics are recycled into new products. Often these products are single-use disposable items such as plastic bags. This is below the global rate of 14-18%. The rest is incinerated (24%) or discarded in landfills and in nature (58-62%). The reason so little plastic is recycled is not because we don’t have the recycling capacity, but mainly because the composition of many plastics makes them unrecyclable.

Now let’s talk solutions:

Change manufacturing

Fighting plastic waste starts by changing the way we manufacture. If we don’t make something, it can’t be sold and won’t end up in landfills or in the ocean. Companies, including multinationals, are acknowledging this. Ice-cream manufacturer Häagen-Dazs is testing refillable stainless-steel tins while Procter & Gamble is doing the same with Pantene shampoo and 10 other products, in this case with refillable aluminium containers. Another international giant, Unilever, is planning to roll out Axe and Dove deodorants in refillable steel containers.

Refuse the bag (and cup)

Consumers have to come on board, first and foremost by reevaluating our consumption habits. This starts with refusing single-use plastic items such as shopping bags, straws, coffee stirrers, plastic bottles, cutlery, barrier and vegetable bags, and coffee cups. The next step is to invest in reusable shopping bags, coffee cups, water bottles, silicone straws and mesh vegetable bags. Then look at what else you can replace with sustainable alternatives – solid soap and shampoo bars are great alternatives to bottled gel and shampoo. Online stores like Shop Zero Waste and Unpacked Pantry are great sources of inspiration.

Support zero plastic suppliers

Support businesses that have gone the zero plastic route. They include grocery shops like Nude Foods in Cape Town and The Refillery in Johannesburg. Similarly, retailers, fast-food outlets and coffee shops must consider supporting suppliers like GreenHome, South Africa’s first supplier of plant-based, compostable food packaging. The difference between biodegradable and compostable (yes, there is one) is the time it takes a product to break down into water and carbon. A biodegradable straw can take up to two years to disappear, which means that it will be around for two years during which it could be ingested by a turtle, potentially killing it, while compostable one takes a few months at most, depending on the ambient conditions.

Miriam Mannak
A senior sustainability journalist and content producer who specialises in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She works for various media outlets and organisations in and outside South Africa.

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