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Plastic bottles litter the beach in Milnerton, Cape Town. Picture: SUPPLIED
Plastic bottles litter the beach in Milnerton, Cape Town. Picture: SUPPLIED

As preparations get under way for the next round of negotiations towards a legally binding global plastics treaty in Nairobi in November, it is becoming increasingly clear that the petrochemicals industry is fighting a rearguard action to protect its interests. 

Encouragingly, many governments are calling for specific rules to curb plastic pollution. These include global bans and phase-outs for high-risk plastic products, polymers and chemicals, reducing production and consumption, and moving away from single use to multiple use or reuse.

In most cases there has been a convergence of views, but the petrochemical sector — internationally and within SA — has differed on several positions.  

Circular economy 

Notably, the industry maintains the challenge of plastic pollution can be solved through sufficient waste management. This narrow view runs counter to the principles of a circular economy, which calls for a systems design approach. A circular economy is not only about recycling; it targets every life cycle stage including raw material extraction, production, consumption and waste management.  

According to the UN Development Programme the “enormous volume [of plastics] vastly exceeds our capacity to treat plastic waste safely”. The latest available data shows the scale of the “pollution gap” between the volume of plastic produced globally and the global capacity to manage it properly at end of life results in more than 80% becoming waste each year.

Of this waste, only 9% is recycled, 49% ends up in landfills, almost 20% is incinerated, and the remaining 22% is mismanaged, which includes waste “burnt in open pits, dumped into seas or open waters, or disposed of in unsanitary dumpsites”. This means globally just 33-million tonnes of plastic waste is recycled, while the volume of legacy plastic pollution grows by a further 78-million metric tonnes each year.  

The Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) has produced a report including an “optimal system change scenario”, which shows that by reducing the demand for plastics followed by improving plastic collection, recycling and disposal to sanitary landfill, we could avoid 63% of plastic pollution over the period 2023-40. 

Systemic change 

There is broad consensus that the plastic challenge is complex and there will be fallout from the treaty provisions on the virgin plastic and chemical sector, globally and in SA. The local plastics manufacturing sector is prized by the government as it provides up to 80,000 formal jobs in a country with high rates of unemployment and poverty. However, with the transition to a circular plastic economy the country could save $475m from direct plastic pollution costs, benefit from $7.2bn in additional GDP growth, and see an overall increase in the demand for both skilled and unskilled labour.  

The CSIR report says a systems transition would avoid 37% of projected greenhouse gas emissions; reduce required investment by 67% because of avoided capital costs; and lead to a 3% increase in local employment opportunities compared with business as usual. 

Wiggle room 

Most UN member states, NGOs and civil society groups, as well as progressive businesses, agree that for the global treaty to succeed there is a need to ensure harmonised global rules and regulations. But the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries do not agree.  

Plastics SA anticipates that the document will have a top-down approach. “In contrast, the global plastics community advocates for a bottom-up approach, emphasising the importance of considering the unique challenges and needs of each country before enforcing a legally binding instrument,” it argues. 

The problem with bottom-up approaches is that they become mired in divisive political interests within countries. This has resulted in the perceived failures of the Paris Agreement, which has seen climate action fall woefully short of what is required. 

According to the business coalition for a global plastics treaty, which includes multinational brands, retailers, financial institutions and recyclers, fast-changing and unpredictable plastic regulations in each country have resulted in high compliance scanning costs and complexity for companies.  

These organisations all agree that a legally binding, top-down global treaty would provide a common policy framework with targets and action plans, giving companies long-term visibility and stability to plan and invest. Clearly, “the global plastics community” referred to by Plastics SA does not include these businesses.  

Polluter-pays principle 

Users of plastic, the brands and retailers, need to be aware of the “value at risk”, which is the proportion of revenue that could be lost if companies are held accountable for the damage caused by plastic use and disposal.  

Funding via a dedicated multilateral fund is key to an effective treaty. However, funding should be for interventions across the life cycle of plastic, not only at end of life or waste management. The source of these funds is an important point though, as the costs of plastic pollution have to date largely been borne by society and the environment. 

Public funding, which would be new, additional, stable, accessible and adequate, is an important source, while a proposed Global Plastic Pollution Fund gives effect to the polluter-pays principle, aligning the costs of ending plastic pollution under the global treaty to be shared with polluters. 

Ultimately, the elephant in the room is the need to reduce plastic production and usage, which is a first step in a transition to a circular economy for plastics. This means the elimination of high-risk and unnecessary plastic products, chemicals and substances that pose a high pollution risk to human health and the environment, are single use and cannot be reused or recycled. 

With progressive businesses already seeing and acting on these risks, should the virgin plastics-petrochemical industry not embrace the change and start looking at alternative business models? 

• De Kock is senior manager: circular economy at WWF SA. This article was co-authored by Greenpeace Africa and the Green Anglicans. 

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