In an age of plastic pollution

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Plastic has become a huge problem. Found in various forms within every South African household, the global prediction is that in 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

“It’s critical that consumers take cognisance of the pressure everyday waste items place on the waste disposal infrastructure and ultimately the environment as a whole.” says Leon Grobbelaar, president of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA). IWMSA says a plastic bag can take anywhere from 500 to 7 000 years to decompose. The Ocean Conservancy’s 207 8 Coastal Clean­up report notes that during the 2017 effort to clean up coastlines.

plastic bags ranked as the fifth most collected item. Four of the top five items picked up included plastics
(bags, food wrappers. beverage bottles and caps). most of which can be recycled. It is estimated that nearly 250 000 plastic bottles are dumped every hour. These plastic bottles constitute close to 50% of recyclable waste at landfills.

landfill

According to BirdLife International. eight million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year, equating to about one full truckload of rubbish being dumped into the oceans every minute. For Birdlife, one of the biggest concerns is that seabirds ingest plastic. “I will admit to being reduced to tears more
than once watching a wandering albatross chick killed by a plastic toothpick,” says Stephanie Winnard, manager of BirdLife lnternational’s Marine Project. Jaquelene Krishen. education officer at WESSA’s Treasure Beach Environmental Education Centre, says about 88% of the oceans contain plastic or remnants of plastic.

“In a recent study, South Africa ranked 11th in a poll of the top 20 countries in the world with mismanaged plastic waste. We are also among four other African countries with a coastal population of around 12 million, contributing to 2% of mismanaged plastic waste in that study.” she says.

Krishen, who is completing her thesis on plastic pollution at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. says
in 207 2 plastic consumption in South Africa was over 1.6 million tonnes. “We are a big contributor to plastic pollution. Our coastal areas, estuarine systems, and the guts of our marine animals, are flooded with microplastics.”

Research continues to determine other factors contributing to microplastic accumulation in South Africa. “This information will further clarify the plastic predicament and will enable us to make more informed decisions.” adds Krishen.

John Kieser, sustainability manager at Plastics SA says compared to other African countries. South Africa has more plastic bottle and bottle cap pollution. “Tanzania. Kenya and Angola have more fishing-related material. Some of this netting is very harmful and many gill nets are found discarded. Film (water sachets) is a major problem in Nigeria and Ghana.” Kieser is positive about the size of the recycling industry in South Africa, but says the logistical issues faced by corporates are a huge hindrance on recycling and the use of sustainable packaging.

Do we have enough information on plastic?

Environmental scientist Dr Tony Ribbink says the main problem is the lack of “real measurable data” to get an accurate picture of “one of the world”s greatest threats”. At the PETCO AGM earlier this year. Ribbink said Port Elizabeth is blazing a trail in the fight against plastic pollution. and if it continues in this vein. it could be the cleanest city in South Africa by 2021. World Environment Day 2018 was themed #BeatPlasticPollution. John Duncan. head of WWF South Africa·s Marine Programme. says. “We have spent centuries extracting and consuming the planet”s resources and then simply discarding what is left over into the ocean or landfills. Not too surprisingly. our natural ecosystems are now reaching the point where they can no longer absorb our waste. We are starting to witness natural feedback cycles in the form of climate change. species extinction and oceans increasingly teeming with more plastic than fish in volume:· Duncan
says items such as straws. coffee cup lids. earbuds. individual sweet wrappers. plastic cutlery. stirrers and shopping bags are generally used for less than 20 minutes before they are thrown away. “The next time you are offered one of these items. take a second to think about whether you really need it. or whether there is another way of consuming your coffee or carrying your shopping:

Plastic producers, plastic consumers and recycling

Miscommunication continues between plastic producers and consumers about the importance of recycling and the impacts of pollution. Krishen says social and cultural barriers continue to prevent people from adapting to modern ideas. –Concepts such as environmentalism. conservation. global warming and climate change are still not recognised or accepted by some. One solution is to empower people to understand the importance of environmental protection and then to encourage them to share this knowledge within their community. It is only through education that people grow and understand. With education. we can break through social barriers and effectively communicate the dangers of pollution:·

Recycling also has the potential to create thousands of jobs in South Africa. The PET Company says plastic bottles create income opportunities for informal collectors. who in turn contribute to recycling efforts. “If one person collects 200 bottles for 240 days of the year. it amounts to 1 450kg a year:

Written by Carina Borralho  

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