Our Burning Planet

OUR BURNING PLANET

South Africa to import plastic waste ‘to meet the needs of the industry’

Recyclers walk among their recycled plastic collection, Pretoria, South Africa, on 27 May 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK)
By Onke Ngcuka
16 Sep 2021 12

South Africa recycles only 14% of its plastic waste – yet the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment is opening up applications for plastic waste import, all in the name of saving the plastic industry.

As if South Africa wasn’t struggling to deal with its own plastic, the country is opening up applications for importing plastic waste in order to meet the plastic industry’s needs, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) told Daily Maverick

The import of plastic waste will be regulated under the outlinings and mandate of the Basel Convention, which addresses the movement of hazardous waste between nations, DFFE Minister Barbra Creecy said in a  parliamentary internal question paper.   

Creecy said the Basel Convention has set up systems to handle the applications of plastic waste import. The 188 parties who signed the treaty are expected to state the use of the plastic being imported, as well as indicating proof of scarcity of plastic waste when looking to import waste into the country. 

The Basel Convention, which does not explicitly address plastic waste and its life cycle, was used by South Africa to defend it not joining an international treaty that addressed the life cycle of plastic. It was said that the Basel Convention sufficed to tackle the county’s plastic leakage. 

“This dance the department continues to do with business interest groups is dangerous,” Greenpeace digital mobilisation officer Angelo Louw told Daily Maverick.

“Their response in Parliament publicly confirms the damning agenda uncovered in leaked documents earlier this year, implicating our government in capture by the plastics industry.” 

However, according to the chief director of communications in the DFFE, Albi Modise, the main reason for opening up imports is to plug what plastic businesses in South Africa have identified as a shortage of certain plastics in the country. 

“As such, in order to sustain their businesses, import of certain plastic waste streams to supplement the current availability of the said waste in SA is required. This is found for the general plastic waste streams such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE both LD and HD), polypropylene (PP) and polyurethane (PU),” Modise said.  

South Africa is nowhere near being so short of plastic waste that it can take on additional waste. It produces about 2,3 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. A report released this month shows plastic pollution is not slowing down, and is expected to reach 600 million tonnes in global oceans by 204o.  

Identified as the world’s 11th biggest polluter of land-based plastic pollution into the oceans, and the third in Africa after Egypt and Nigeria, South Africa recycles only about 14% of plastic waste. This figure includes imported waste, leaving a vast amount of plastic pollution leaking into the environment and the oceans. 

“The expansion of plastic production means that recycling is never going to catch up. We are already under 20% [recycling rate]; 20% of a greater quantity means that there’s going to be much more [plastic waste] left in the environment,” Groundwork coordinator Niven Reddy told Daily Maverick. 

Modise said all imported plastic waste is going to be recycled. According to Creecy, South Africa’s existing systems are effective enough in “significantly reducing” plastic waste, especially plastic waste going into the ocean. Measures such as the Extended Producer Responsibility regulations, National Waste Management Strategy, amended plastic carrier bag regulations, as well as private and civil society initiatives were highlighted as plastic waste reduction strategies. 

“For the import of plastic that is a terrible idea. I really hope that they rethink that and we don’t actually [import plastic waste],” Reddy said. 

Currently, South Africa imports plastic waste from mainly the Southern Africa Development Community region, such as Namibia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, as well as from Germany and China, Modise said. So far this year it has imported 5,773 tonnes of plastic waste. Its exports, since 2019, have amounted to 9,527.336 tonnes of general waste, with no plastic waste export since 2019. 

“All countries need to manage their own waste. And if they cannot manage their own waste, they shouldn’t be creating that much [of it]. If we adopt this kind of approach to accept [plastic waste], then we are sort of saying it is okay to just generate as much as they want and [South Africa] will deal with it. It’s a bad message to put across,” Reddy said. 

Earlier this month, South Africa did not participate in the first global Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, where  Ghana, Vietnam and Germany, among others, supported a treaty to reduce plastic leakage globally. This is despite the DFFE, in June, saying that the draft document was not a final decision on participating in the treaty. 

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa senior researcher Prahbat Upadhyaya told Daily Maverick that at least 119 countries are supporting the call for a new United Nations treaty on plastic pollution. 

“It is important to get clarity on the due process that the department intends to undertake in informing its position paper before taking it to the Cabinet cluster process. WWF and other civil society representatives stand ready to provide inputs into the process for informing South Africa’s position on a global agreement to address plastic pollution. 

Creecy said in her parliamentary response that South Africa was very much aware of a potential new international treaty on the subject, as the country is actively participating in those discussions. But, she said, South Africa had not yet taken a position, as that was dependent on the paper going through the Cabinet cluster process.  

Reddy said the argument against joining another treaty was the legislation of other treaties covering the basis of South Africa’s environmental challenges. He recommended the department adopt a stance that encourages countries to deal with their waste rather than allowing them to dump their plastic here. 

“We can barely manage what we produce. Bringing in more plastic waste is going to lead to greater problems. Thinking we can recycle our way out of this is completely flawed.” DM/OBP

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Absa OBP

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All Comments 12

  • Should we consider that the SA govt might be getting paid for the dumping ? Where does the money benefit lie and who gets to deal it out ?

    This sounds dodgy… indeed. ..it sounds creecy!

  • There are amazing plastic waste-to-energy plants (through pyrolysis) that are available in a modular form but the government regulations make this investment prohibitive. These plants can be located anywhere and are emissions free and provide cheap back up power that we really need. However, to enable this, the government needs to remove pyrolysis as a listed activity from the NEM Act 2010. The technology has come a long way and is now very clean and safe and MODULAR! Every packaging plant, shop centre and other large plastic waste generating building in the country should have one!

    Once again, our government’s ineptitude lets us down. The NEM Act of 2010 must be amended ASAP to enable new technologies to be used in SA.

  • There are very good reasons why China stopped importing plastic from the EU: one being that it was all mixed up with junk and couldn’t be recycled! So the EU is looking for a dumping ground. Enter easy-to- bribe officials and politicians and voila, problem solved for them. And we the citizens, will sit with millions of tons of plastic pollution! We need to vote the vandals out They will destroy everything!

  • Recycling corruption! Why would we want another country’s rubbish? We can’t even clean up our municipalities. It has to be the money. The US and Europe already export tons of plastic waste to developing countries, often disguised as “Used goods.”

  • We are ignoring the role of the plastic products producers in this country. Government corruption doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are generally also commercial entities involved. So called “business” people. The plastics industry should be forced to take full responsibility for their packaging. Cradle to grave. Perhaps the introduction of refundable deposits for single use plastic? In this country there would not be a single use container lying around anywhere if each item could be exchanged for cash. Build it into the price and make the producers pumping out the product on their injection molders responsible for recovering it from the recyclers and waste pickers. Make the waste into a valuable commodity funded by lazy consumers who can’t be bothered to recycle or return the packaging for deposit refunds. In any event, the time has long passed for us to begin phasing out single use plastic in this country.

  • There is money in waste recycling, and properly done it could have financial and ecological benefit. But fundamentally we shoukd be starting with our oen waste first, learn how to ensure it is separated correctly which is costly, and have supporting industries emerge. Only once these long haul programs are in place should we consider importing. Thats the reason that this seems like corruption- it feels logically like an excuse to make easy money at the South African expense.

    • Colleen : a start would be to make plastic packaged products very expensive so that people will return it for the ‘deposit’ or go around picking up the damned waste clogging everywhere. Start with polysterene fast food. R5 extra.

      What I’d like to know is what goes through a person’s mind when they sit in a taxi and think it is fine to just throw out a bag with KFC packaging and empty bottles.