Africa: ‘We’re Drowning in Plastic – We Need More Plastics Treaties’

From January 23 to 25, South Africa hosted the first in-person meeting of international Plastics Pacts with twelve (of the fourteen) national and regional Plastics Pacts meeting.

The Plastic Pacts are an example of a Public-Private Partnership (often called a Voluntary Agreement) which have been adopted by many nations ahead of the United Nations Global Treaty to end plastic pollution.

Pact members include major fast moving consumer goods brands, packaging companies, producers, traders, processors, academia, trade associations, NGOs, and governments who are all working towards a shared vision with business signatories measured against a series of science-based targets to reduce the impact they have on the environment through their use of plastics.

allAfrica’s Sethi Ncube spoke to Climate action NGO WRAP’s CEO, Harriet Lamb about this first in-person Plastic Pacts meeting. WRAP is a climate action NGO working around the globe to tackle the causes of the climate crisis and work towards a sustainable future, it aims to end waste in plastics, food, and textiles, and to promote a circular economy.

What are some of the notable achievements or milestones that WRAP has reached in its efforts to combat the climate crisis, and how do these accomplishments align with the goals of the Plastics Pact Network?

After David Attenborough’s film “Blue Planet” on BBC, that led to an absolute outcry among the public about turtles and whales drowning because of eating plastics, companies mobilised, together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the first Plastics Pact in the UK was formed. Hundreds of companies joined up to the targets of what they would come together to do by 2025. People from around the world also echoed the same sentiments and are bringing companies together in a safe pre-competitive space, where they can together discuss how to reduce plastics and move to a more circular economy. And so the idea spread and number three in the world was South Africa…and there are now 14 Plastic Pacts. For the first time the network has come together here in Cape Town, people coming from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Chile, Colombia, India, Kenya, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, UK and USA to share ideas .. and to think on how can they work together to eliminate plastic.

How have Plastics Pacts changed the way we address plastic pollution?

I think what’s really interesting is they’ve created this space where companies come together… If companies think “my competitor is still selling for example plastic straws or earbuds made with plastic or a lovely coloured bottle so I must have a lovely coloured bottle”, but if they decide together “let’s just sell plain bottles, because then they’re easier to recycle”, then those companies can move together to take that action and they can get the scale that is needed to change an industry because then it’s worth it for the manufacturers, because all brands are asking the same thing. And then it’s working for the recycling factories because everybody is giving them better quality of plastics for recycling for example. So it’s an idea that a whole industry can move together.

If companies move together, together with government, NGOs and set targets together they might eliminateunnecessary single-`use plastic by 2025.

I think that accountability is also really important and that helps create national awareness among businesses but also among policy makers. In some countries, the Plastic Pacts also run campaigns. We run a campaign in the UK, for example, called Recycle Week. And last week we focused on all those items that people have in the bathroom, maybe shampoo bottles or face cream bottles that they often forget to recycle.

What key systemic changes have emerged as a result?

Eliminating single-use unnecessary plastics is something all the pacts have got as one of their targets, another target is increasing the amount of recycled material in all your products. For example in the UK, we recycle our milk bottles lids which then come back as milk bottles…that’s the kind of systematic changes that we’ve seen. However, we still have so much to do. The mounds of plastic are growing all around the world, we’re drowning in plastic. So the good work of the Plastic Pact has to be scaled to the next level and has to spread to other countries and we really need more plastics treaties.

How do you think South Africa is doing in terms of eliminating single use plastic?

South Africa, in some ways, of course has been quite early to come in and say “we want to tackle this problem” and has some of the infrastructure to deal with it. On the other hand, waste is brewing in South Africa. South Africa alone generates 2.4 million tons of plastic waste every single year. So enormous progress is being made and at the same time more plastic is coming onto the market. Most countries in Africa are unable to cope with the level of plastic that’s pouring on, which is why the answer has to be in the first place – REDUCE – reduce is the number one strategy, “take those items of plastic away, don’t use them anymore”… The number one is reduce, because if you don’t have the systems in place to collect, to recycle then you’re in trouble and that’s why we’ve been exploring in all the Plastic Pacts options around refill or reuse.

During your time in Cape Town, what  local projects do you plan to visit?

We’re going to meet the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARL). They are one of the reclaimers and waste pickers organisations that are part of the South Africa Plastics Pact, and they are very much about organising the waste pickers and so we will be going out with the waste pickers. I’m super excited to spend tomorrow with the reclaimers to learn about all that they’ve been doing to improve their conditions, about the role that they play in helping keep our communities and neighborhoods clear of the litter.

What can we expect from this first in-person meeting that SA is hosting?

The first thing is I just think people are very inspired to be together, you know they are struggling with these difficult, really complex, really technical problems sometimes. And to have that chance to come together with other people struggling with the same problem gives you new energy. It gives you new inspiration. It gives you new ideas… And so I think we can see the Plastic Pacts, having new energy, new impetus, new commitment to really scale their impact. It’s on the agenda tomorrow. How do we scale up or impact? How do we take it? Because as I said more plastic is coming onto the market…..we’re going to definitely think about what more can we do? Do we want to spread to other countries? How can we move faster? Do we want to be tougher on saying stop using virgin plastics? I think you can expect to see definitely this reinforced commitment… I think you can see also improved policy both at the national level where many people work on what’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

It’s a new legislation that countries are introducing where if I’m a company and I’m putting plastics on the market, I have to pay for it….We’re going to introduce it in the UK, but other countries are way ahead including South Africa, Kenya and Chile. I think we can see people learning about what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and how can we share best practice. And I think we can see a reinforced determination that the global plastics treaty being negotiated will be a high ambition treaty.

What factors contributed to the decision to launch the South African Plastic Pact as the third globally?

I think it’s because they heard about the plastics pact in the UK and they saw all around them the pollution and they were hearing from companies about it. They want to make sure it is a just transition to the green economy. And they believe that there are the jobs and the livelihoods in a more circular economy. So immediately they saw that this was potentially a brilliant way to bring companies together, including global brands like Unilever, Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Tiger, Woolworths and discuss together how to shift the market and to encourage investment into this new circular economy. So I think they just saw very quickly the potential to make a difference and took it up and ran with it.

How does this SA Plastic Pact compare to the earlier launched initiatives globally?

It’s really interesting because we’ve got so much that is similar. We face similar problems and sometimes – the same companies. So that’s where everybody has a goal target, eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic, every every pact has that. But then, of course, the pacts are different depending on the country, depending on the products, depending on how wealthy the country is, depending on “Is there an informal waste collectors sector or not?”, because in the UK, we don’t have an informal sector – it’s all companies collecting waste, usually through our local government. So we would have some goals that are not relevant in another country where it’s all about the waste pickers, so that’s where the pacts have been able to flex and get it right for each country. We are always talking, we talk together with businesses in the country, together with waste pickers in that country, with SMEs, with government and then adapt the principles to the local situation.

What unique role does the Informal Waste Sector (IWS) play in the South African context and other participating countries?

I mean, in many countries, they are the people collecting waste. I think there’s 20 million waste pickers internationally. Globally, waste pickers collect 60% of all the plastic that gets recycled, because in countries like India, like South Africa, like Kenya they are so critical. It’s not the same as I said, in countries that have strong recycling sector, collections, that have local government collecting but in so many parts of the world that’s not true and therefore, they are absolutely at the heart of thinking how can we make sure that their incomes and livelihoods are enhanced and improved as we move towards this more circular economy. And of course why that’s brilliant is because they’re in their communities, they know their communities…they know who needs what kind of waste they pick for recycling…They really care for their community and very often of course, as they go around they get to know everybody, they get to see everybody and they are often famous in different countries. They’re also really key community ambassadors. – Edited by Melissa Britz

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