Daryl Ilbury

Plastic bags – my, how things have gone wrong

In Eish!, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on August 3, 2012 at 8:43 am

Carrybagus plasticus – the South African national flower. Image: Abrie Fourie

A wry smile etched itself all over my face when I read an article in Wednesday’s Guardian about about the call in the UK for a levy on single-use plastic bags – the cheap and nasty bags designed to carry little more than a box of cigarettes and a Mars bar before breaking.

I smiled because in South Africa we’ve been down this road, and what was promised at the end of it was certainly now what we found.

In 2002, regulations under section 24 (d) of the Environmental Conservation Act 73 of 1989 banned the manufacture, trade and commercial distribution of plastic bags with a wall thickness of less than 80 micrometres. What followed was a series of regulations that ensured that a major cost would be drawn from the purse of the consumer. There were to be no more free plastic bags at the till. Instead, people would have to pay for thicker bags.

The reason behind it was supposed to be two-fold:

to try and reduce the volume of what had become jokingly known as South Africa’s national flower – the colourful strips of plastic caught in the barbed wire fencing along the country’s national roads; and to encourage in the consumer the responsibility of reusing and recycling.

To help things along, a company called Buyisa-e-Bag was created by the Government to establish waste collection networks, including the development of waste collection SMME’s, and the promotion of job creation and re-skilling of workers in the plastics field. To finance it, it would receive the revenues from the levies on the thicker plastic bags.

Buyisa-e-Bag remains singularly splendid in its unequivocal failure. In fact it will be examined for decades to come as a classic global MBA case study in state mismanagement.

In March this year the Department of Environmental affairs finally released a meida (sic) statement announcing the closing down of Buyisa-e-Bag. And the millions of Rands that were collected in levies?  My guess is that there’s a lot of officials driving around in luxury German sedans.

But would it have worked if Buyisa-e-Bag had got its act together? That’s a moot point, but one thing is clear: the recycling of plastic carry bags (as with any recycling) is a non-starter unless the consumer/purchaser of said product makes the conscious decision to recycle and takes the necessary effort to start the process. It doesn’t help if the process is in place but no-one puts a bag in a recycling bin; and South Africa has yet to embrace a recycling mindset. It still throws stuff away.

The answer therefore lies not in recycling, but in biodegradation; and I mean proper biodegradation. Don’t be fooled by greenwash claims of biodegradable plastic bags, which are in fact bags made of plastic with additives that encourage the plastic to break down. These are not biodegradable, they are simply degradable.

Proper biodegradable bags are made of natural (as opposed to synthetic) materials and should be able to compost within 12 weeks, or a maximum of 6 months.

As a means of comparison: calculations of the degradation of normal plastic bags vary depending on the conditions; but it is estimated that the thin, single use plastic bags referred to in the Guardian article may take up to 500 years to degrade. And those thicker plastic bags that South Africans were forced to pay R150m for every year? You’re looking at up to 1000 years for each one of them to degrade.

My, how things have gone wrong. 

  1. I was working at one of the biggest retailers in the country when this legislation was implemented and I was given job to work out a supply model for the stores re bags. Initial indications were that it would cost them just over R10m per year to supply the customers with bags free of charge. Which they decided to do.

    In depth discussions with the manufacturers indicated that they thought this was a very good and sustainable idea if government would allow private companies to make use of the subsidies to recycle. The rest is history.

    Anyhoo, a few years back Trevor Manual answered a question in parliament on the whereabouts of the levies and stated that it was absorbed into treasury under general funds and distributed where they felt necessary because the infrastructure for which the money was intended for didn’t exist.

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