THE fallout from the plastic bag levy of 2002 continues, and it’s not a good story.
There was optimism in some quarters at the time, 15 years ago, when the bag levy legislation was passed and there were plans for recycling and cleanups and job creation and what knows else, but it all come to practically naught. The bag manufacturers paid the levies, heard next to nothing from the administrators of that ‘fund’ and, perhaps preferring to be left alone, keep quiet and continued operating peacefully. But quite a number of the convertors hit on the idea of increasing filler levels, specifically that of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which had a very definite benefit: the filler cost less than polymer, allowed extrusion and bag making to continue as normal and, obviously, reduced manufacturing cost. Over time levels of filler crept up steadily to the point where some of the convertors were running very high levels of filler, such as over half the material content. Wouldn’t you too?
The only problem is that it’s difficult to recycle bags with a high CaCO3 content. Well, it is possible, but not if the collected bags need to pass through a recycler’s washplant. In that event, the filler and carrier material sink, whereas polyolefins such as HD usually float. This is a very real problem in South Africa, where the bulk of recycled shopping bags have been retrieved from landfill sites and the wash stage is necessary. So the recycling of plastic shopping bags (specifically HD bags) has ground to a halt.
But that is only half the story. A malaise has set in: the convertors do not want to concede, fearing that other bag manufacturers may not (and gain an advantage); relations between recyclers and convertors have deteriorated; and relations among recyclers are also on edge. Like all manufacturing sectors, there is serious competition between recyclers too and, since the recycling of shopping bags was formerly an attractive market for some of the recyclers, that has been heightened. The fact that fear and loathing now stalks the bag recycling sector is no understatement.
What’s the point of this? The shopping bag sector is highly visible (most consumers seem to believe that plastics are either bags or bottles) but it’s a relatively small part of the overall tonnage converted. No, the point is that a similar scenario could so easily come to roost in your sector. Effective liaison with the Department of Environmental Affairs and other government departments, which has so far proved elusive for the industry, may go a long way towards improving communication and setting us on a course towards genuine economic recovery and development.
Management of most companies in the industry seem reluctant to engage with government departments and personnel, but there have been some success stories. Take the current sugar tax proposal: Boxmore’s David Drew has engaged with various legislators in the process and managed to achieve some real concessions. By default, he became the unexpected spokesman for the industry, simply because no one else put their hand up – or even reacted for that matter. There can be little doubt that a tax on sugar (for health reasons) is necessary, but for plastic container manufacturers that posed a real threat for substantial price increases on CSD products, and may have even led to consumer rejection – which is obviously unwelcome to them.
Perhaps one way forward is to either engage more enthusiastically with legislators or find someone in your company or appoint someone who can and who is prepared to do so. Failure to do so may result in burdensome legislation being foisted on us.
Martin Wells, Publisher