Banning plastic bags won’t have much impact on Africa’s garbage problem, the author says. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Banning plastic bags won’t have much impact on Africa’s garbage problem, the author says. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Plastics SA has called on the government to take steps immediately to ring-fence the plastic bag levy so it can all be used for recycling. 

Nearly R2bn has been raised since the supermarket plastic bag levy was introduced 15 years ago but only half of it has gone to recycling. The Treasury has allocated the rest to other departments.

Plastics SA represents plastics industry players, including polymer producers, converters and recyclers.  The organisation said the levy should have been ring-fenced for its intended purpose: to develop better recycling facilities and incentivise sustainable consumer behaviour.

The levy is applied to the producers of the plastic bags but is ultimately passed on to consumers, who buy the bags at tills for varying prices from 50c. It was introduced in 2004 with a minimum limit on the thickness of the bags to aid recycling and promote reuse, after an agreement between the department of environmental affairs, labour and business.

The intention was to encourage shoppers to use fewer plastic bags and reduce pollution and pressure on overstretched landfills. The money raised was meant to develop the recycling industry and expand its workforce.

Anton Hanekom, executive director of Plastics SA, called on the government on Wednesday to fix SA’s inadequate waste management facilities urgently and improve infrastructure for collection and recycling.

“In doing so, it can create thousands of new jobs while safeguarding the 100,000 formal and informal jobs that the plastics industry currently provides,” said Hanekom.

“To start financing the upgrade of our flawed waste management system, our view is that the government must immediately take steps to ring-fence the plastic bag levy. This levy has increased from 3c per bag in 2003 to 12c in 2018.

“The nearly R2bn that has been raised through the levy so far should never have been absorbed into the black hole of our national fiscus. Instead, the levy should have been ring-fenced for its intended purpose: to develop better recycling facilities and incentivise sustainable consumer behaviour,” he said.

In 2018, the Treasury said that funding raised from the levy was not ring-fenced for the recycling industry as this strategy was no longer considered best practice. The plastic bag levy money was channelled into the National Revenue Fund and allocated to government departments.

Hanekom said in the next weeks and months, the plastics industry will embark on a sustained campaign to persuade the government and citizens to join the war on plastic pollution.

“We support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s quest to clean up SA, but it can only happen if there is a recycling revolution in this country. We believe that plastic — if used correctly and disposed of properly — is a product that has immense value to society. It has a smaller carbon footprint than the alternatives, and it is more cost effective to produce. This means a lower cost of living, more economic growth and more jobs.”

Hanekom said a rational conversation about plastic pollution recognises the positive attributes of plastic and focuses on how to manage plastic waste.

“It is tempting to imagine a world without plastic as some sort of environmental utopia. But when used in consumer goods, plastic uses four times less energy than alternative materials such as metal, paper and glass. In fact, alternatives to plastic packaging would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions.

“The fact is that plastic — if disposed of correctly — is one of the most environmentally friendly products there is. And this is where the solution to plastic pollution can be found: in the correct disposal and management of plastic waste,” he said. 

phakathib@businesslive.co.za