Toxic: Pollution caused by single-use plastics is affecting the world’s rivers and oceans and the government is awaiting a report with recommendations on how to change this. Picture: SUPPLIED
Toxic: Pollution caused by single-use plastics is affecting the world’s rivers and oceans and the government is awaiting a report with recommendations on how to change this. Picture: SUPPLIED

The government is consulting the cosmetics industry about phasing out products that contain tiny pieces of plastic known as microbeads, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has revealed.

The move is part of a broader push by the Department of Environmental Affairs to reduce plastic pollution and reflects growing concern about its effect on oceans.

Microbeads are used in toiletries such as exfoliating face scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes. Most water treatment plants cannot filter out these tiny particles, which enter the sea and are consumed by fish and other marine life.

The UK has already prohibited the manufacture of products containing microbeads, and a ban on their sale comes into effect there in July. The US banned microbeads in cosmetics in 2015.

While microbeads represent only a fraction of the 8-million tonnes of plastic that enter the world’s oceans every year, environmental affairs director-general Nosipho Ngcaba said they wield a disproportionate amount of harm.

Ngcaba said a government study on the environmental threat posed by different kinds of plastics was almost complete, and would guide the department on whether to consider a ban on other kinds of single-use plastics, such as straws, stirrers and ear buds.

The Plastic Material Study was conducted in collaboration with industry, the South African Bureau of Standards, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications, the Treasury and the Health Department.

"We are committed to minimising plastic pollution and implementing the recommendations of the plastic material study," Molewa said on Wednesday, ahead of her budget vote speech to Parliament.

Asked if a ban on plastic drinking straws was in the offing, she said "it is … possible".

Many companies have begun to cut down on single-use plastics and a proposal to phase them out was announced at a meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government in April.

The minister criticised Parliament for providing drinking water in plastic bottles, saying there was nothing wrong with Cape Town’s tap water. "Water should be in jugs," she said.

She said the government was planning to review the effect of the implementation of SA’s plastic bag policies. SA introduced legislation in 2003 aimed at reducing plastic bag litter.

A 2010 paper by researchers at the University of Cape Town found there was an initial drop in consumption, but the levy was too small to change consumer behaviour.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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