The government is mulling whether to introduce a new policy meant to combat the use of single-use plastics and their disposal management. 

This as business intensifies its calls for the plastic bag levy to be ring-fenced so it can all be used for recycling and to fix SA’s inadequate waste management facilities.

Citing a recent report by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which states that there could be more plastics than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050 if no action is taken immediately, environment, forestry and fisheries minister Barbara Creecy said the government needs to respond urgently to improve the management of plastic waste.

“The department has initiated a process to review the effectiveness of policies relating to the management of plastic waste and to consider whether it is necessary to have a new policy direction,” Creecy said in a written reply to a question from the DA, which was published in parliament on Thursday.

The review includes discussions with retail, pharmaceutical and cosmetics sectors, as well as the paper and packaging industries on ways to combat the use of one-time plastics and their disposal management, the minister said.

“We expect to conclude this process within the current financial year,” said Creecy.

Plastic bag levy

Earlier in 2019, Plastics SA called on the government to take immediate steps to ring-fence the plastic bag levy so it can all be used for recycling. Nearly R2bn has been raised since the retailing 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 re-use, 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 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 the plastics industry currently provides,” Hanekom said at the time. “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.”

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