THE industry in South Africa and around the world faces probably its toughest challenge yet, that of dealing with the massive pressure placed on it and its partners to reduce and even eliminate the large quantities of plastic packaging litter that are entering and polluting the oceans.
The criticism by environmental groups has recently gathered momentum and gained wide public and consumer support, to the point where it is going to be very difficult to ignore – which is basically what has happened up till now. The tone of the criticism has changed and become more urgent and retailers around the world, certainly in the West, are sympathetic to the cause and are making plans to change. We could lose out badly if we do not change too.
The main culprits appear to be non-recyclable and ‘one way’ plastic goods and packaging, specifically film and bags, but there are other commonplace items which too face a rocky future, such as straws and ear buds. Some retailers in South Africa have reacted quickly (they had to) and agreed to phase out non-recyclables, but to achieve a complete change by 2022 must surely be unrealistic.
So the best features of plastic packaging goods, that they are light and flexible, have now become the chief problem: carelessly discarded packaging items either blow around in the wind or float down rivers, with the ultimate destination for both being the ocean gyres or to simply wash up and festoon themselves like unwelcome garlands on river banks and beaches. And even though fish and ocean mammals have miraculously survived the sustained onslaught of the global fishing industry lasting for several centuries, the sight of whales dying after ingesting plastic bags is outright tragic and most of you will see it that way too. Besides the blockage of their digestive systems, ingestion of bags or film makes these animals feel full, leading to loss of condition and ultimately death.
Besides that, sea birds and a host of other marine creatures are suffering as a result of both the litter and macro plastics which, almost unseen, have spread rampantly. The figures that are being presented are sometimes hard to believe, but a lot of research appears to have been done and it’s almost certainly going to be futile to resist. Plastic is in most cases the best solution for packaging, but failure to develop effective recyclable solutions and collection is turning the tables on it.
So, rather than argue, the way forward for the industry in South Africa may be to embrace the change and develop new solutions to counteract the problem. For one thing, we have a well-developed recycling sector and the country is proportionately one of the top performing recyclers in the industry internationally with a recycling rate of over 41% - which is a notable achievement.
The entire situation may be unfair on the industry in South Africa, and specifically our recyclers, as it appears, according to the WWF (Wildlife Fund for Nature), that over 40% of all plastic waste in the oceans comes from five countries – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. It is not ironic that these countries are also the chief suspects of illegal wildlife trade.
However, given that brand owners and retailers are going to change, internationally and consequently in Africa too, we are going to need to too. It’s going to be difficult, but it’s either that or lose market share.
Martin Wells, Publisher