Picture: 123RF/Huguette Roe
Picture: 123RF/Huguette Roe

Famously branded "SA’s national flower" by one-time environmental affairs minister Valli Moosa, the plastic bag has for years been a ubiquitous part of SA’s retail landscape. But if environmental activists were hoping a ban was imminent, they’re set to be disappointed.

The government first introduced a levy of 3c a bag in June 2004, in the hope of cutting litter and encouraging reuse. Instead, the levy appears to have created a small but dependable money-spinner for the National Treasury: it brought in R241.3m in 2018, from an initial haul of R41.2m in 2004. Given a levy today of 12c a bag, that implies more than 2-billion plastic bags were sold in SA last year.

SA needs every cent it can find, so a plastic bag ban is probably unlikely. But there are rumblings from within SA’s fund manager community.

The FM understands that some top fund managers are keen to use their collective clout to put pressure on listed retailers to curtail or halt the sale of plastic bags across their stores.

The tidal wave of plastic pollution is a problem they should take seriously. The statistics, after all, are horrifying: 8Mt of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year; and, at the current rate, the world’s oceans will carry more plastic, by weight, than fish come 2050.

Recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal made the state of affairs abundantly clear: plastic waste dislodged by torrential rains choked Durban’s harbour and beachfront areas.

Besides, it’s not as if a plastic bag ban is without precedent in Africa.

Two weeks ago, Nigeria’s House of Representatives passed a bill prohibiting "the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging" to mitigate the environmental effect, and "relieve pressure on landfills and waste management".

This week Egypt’s Red Sea province will introduce a ban on single-use plastics, which are destroying marine life in its biggest tourist attraction.

Rwanda — regarded as one of the continent’s cleanest countries — banned plastic bags in 2008.

Back home, change is afoot. But here it is being led, for the moment, by the private sector.

Liberty Two Degrees, which owns Sandton City — a temple to local consumerism — is going ahead with a "no plastic shopping bags" policy for its 1,000-odd tenants from January 1. CEO Amelia Beattie says the eradication of plastic bags is a "bold step", but the "only choice we have is to create transformational targets and actions" for the shops.

About 8-million tons 8Mt of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year. Picture: 123RF/Przemyslaw Ceglarek
About 8-million tons 8Mt of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year. Picture: 123RF/Przemyslaw Ceglarek

Just one of the national retail companies the FM spoke to said it would lose money if it were to stop the sale of plastic bags.

Andre Nel, Pick n Pay GM for sustainability, says the retailer doesn’t "set out to make a profit on plastic bags. Any small proceeds are directed to our community and charitable work."

Shoprite, meanwhile, says the removal of plastics bags would not have a financial effect, "as the selling price of standard bags is very near the cost price, with the negligible margin covering distribution costs".

And Clicks says it makes "no money" from the sale of plastic.

Only Dis-Chem, which sells 52-million plastic bags a year, says it would feel the effect financially. It is in the process of launching biodegradable bags, which will cost 11c more, and it says "the elimination is not practical".

But it’s also making reusable organic cotton bags available.

In February, Pick n Pay launched a "budget" R5 reusable bag trial in 22 stores. It says the response has been encouraging.

Nel says 15,000 of the R5 green bags were bought in February and March. "Over the same period 107,000 [fewer] plastic bags were bought than in the same period last year."

But he says the retailer disagrees with an outright ban on plastic bags. "Many of our customers — particularly those who do not own cars — rely on them to transport their shopping home in a practical and hygienic way," says Nel. "There is also evidence around the world that encouraging people to reuse and recycle leads to more sustained behaviour change than a blanket ban."

The sheer volume of plastic bags sold in SA means behaviour does need to change.

Though Shoprite converted to 100% recycled plastic in its bags, it still sold 350-million in the 2018 financial year. It’s trying to encourage shoppers to buy its R3 reusable bags by offering a 50c rebate on their bill every time they use the bag.

Woolworths, which sold 100-million plastic bags in 2018, has committed to stop selling single-use bags by the end of 2020.

The retailer recently launched its first plastic bag-free store in Steenberg, Cape Town — an experiment that has so far resulted in a cut of 100,000 bag sales. It plans to launch a national trial with similar stores this year.

Woolworths is not averse to removing plastic bags. However, it says it prefers a phased approach, as there are "various logistical, supplier and operational impacts" in going plastic bag-free.

Clearly, an immediate ban on bags is probably wishful thinking. But with so much waste choking world marine and riverine ecosystems, time isn’t on our side.