The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in South Africa recently released a report that highlights the country’s need for a systemic approach to tackle plastic pollution.
The report, titled “WWF Plastics Facts & Futures Report,” explores the environmental and socio-economic impacts of plastic pollution in South Africa. It focuses on plastic packaging as a major contributor and is mainly directed to researchers, industry actors, and policymakers.
An important message that the report aims to relay is that plastic pollution is not the individual person’s problem alone. Larger institutions need to be held accountable for their role in creating the problem.
Co-author of the report and project manager for Circular Plastics Economy at WWF South Africa, Lorren de Kock, explained that South Africa’s plastic pollution has reached crisis levels and needs to be taken seriously.
“The reality is that plastic pollution is a complex societal issue requiring interventions at each stage of the life cycle,” she said. “These include the critical need for a reduction in production and consumption, substitution with alternative materials, and delivery models such as reuse and refill, more investment and support for recycling, and appropriate disposal at end of life,” she said.
In explaining the plastic crisis to Times Live, de Kock used the recent case of nurdles washing up on beaches in Cape Town.
Nurdles are small plastic particles that are used to manufacture larger products and are a by-product of the fossil fuel industry. At the beginning of November, several beaches reported an influx of nurdles after a vessel owned by Plastics SA lost its cargo off the coast of Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape province.
De Kock used this case to highlight the fact that the plastic crisis is too big to be solved by beach clean ups. Although persistent efforts from individuals are well-intentioned, they cannot curb the crisis.
“A situation like this should be similar to an oil spill where there are penalties and polluting companies are held to account,” she said.
The report looks at the way in which plastic is produced and raises the question of whether the plastic production system can be redesigned.
It also identifies plastic products beyond packaging that need to be given attention. Products like sanitary towels, diapers, cigarette butts, and certain types of fishing gear, according to the WWF, are not currently well-managed and add to the problem.
The WWF stresses that for too long the solution to such a severe crisis has been put in the hands of everyday individuals. The expectation is that clean-ups and recycling efforts will eradicate the problem.
The report challenges this narrative and calls for a collaborative effort from multiple stakeholders across the plastics value chain. It also emphasises the importance of preventing pollution as opposed to solving a disaster that has already occurred.
“Addressing the plastic pollution crisis must not be done at the expense of other increasing environmental problems, but if done right, it will result in net positive environmental outcomes for our planet across a range of environmental and social stressors," said de Kock.