OPINION | The awkward intersection of planetary and human health: choking on plastic

(Screengrab via AFP)
(Screengrab via AFP)

Every effort needs to be made to to save the country's recycling sector as an increase of plastic waste as a result of Covid-19 threatens nature, writes Zaynab Sadan and Lethabo Pholotho.

One of the awkward realities of the Covid-19 crisis has been the collision of nature and humanity.

This has been the case for plastics and waste.

Despite its bad press, plastic is a very useful material. It is versatile, durable, convenient, affordable and promotes food safety. The pandemic period has additionally signified its role in the healthcare sector where it is closely linked with preventative measures. Plastics are used in the production of personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitiser containers and ventilators, all used to prevent the transmission of the virus.

Nevertheless, it's a fair assumption that right now plastic waste is entering nature at unprecedented levels. The necessity of substantial volumes of PPE (including single-use masks, face shields and protective suits for the medical sector), coupled with an increase in food deliveries packaged in takeout containers with disposable utensils, along with the perceived uncertainty and contestations around the safety of reusable carrier bags means that heightened single plastic use is inevitable. 

The pandemic has catalysed economic hardships across virtually every economic sector, and the recycling sector is one of several that will suffer the effects of Covid-19 long after the lockdown is over.


Recycling in South Africa was in trouble before the pandemic with the last year being particularly difficult relating to supply and demand imbalances, pricing issues, rising logistics costs and saturated end markets (existing or traditional markets for recyclate like outdoor furniture). We already started to see plummeting prices for post-consumer recycled commodities material in the middle of 2019, severely limiting the options to turn "Waste into Worth".

South Africa's recycling sector is largely made up of the formal sector with some 1 800 processors and manufacturers with some 60 000 jobs and the informal sector or waste reclaimers numbering upwards of 90 000 individuals. With the lockdown that came into effect on 27 March, waste management was deemed an essential service - recycling was not.

With the relaxation of the national lockdown to Level 4 as of 1 May 2020, recycling operations were included in the permitted services, although described in the official schedule as restricted to the recycling of glass, paper and metal. At this stage, the industry operated with little understanding of the spread of the virus and without access to PPE.     

READ | Fighting Covid-19 should not result in losing the war against plastic pollution

As we slowly emerge from lockdown globally we will retain a low value for oil as production will continue to exceed demand. It is estimated that as much as 90% of our recyclables, including plastics, locally are collected by waste reclaimers who can barely survive on about R100 per day they earn. Estimates are that the value of daily reclaiming will reduce to around R25 per day - this will expose the most vulnerable in our society to unimaginable hardship and have an immediate and devastating effect on the informal sector.

The impact on the formal sector will experience a slight lag but it is expected that most of those industries solely reliant on processing recycled materials will not survive the next few months if we continue with business as usual. It is also estimated that the informal sector saves municipalities up to R750 million per year in landfill costs by diverting recyclable materials and so this is an additional burden the state will have to bear.

Add to this that the oil price collapse has seen a reduction in the cost of virgin plastic (made from fossil fuels) which, in turn, has exacerbated challenges for recycling businesses as the price of virgin plastic is so much cheaper than that of recycled plastic.

If we want South Africa's recycling sector to emerge from the pandemic, then we need to ensure that we create enabling mechanisms for systemic change. Without the proper policies, support and infrastructure from the public sector and without appropriate and immediate mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) inputs from plastic producers which will also need to incentivise or legislate packaging design for recycling or reuse, there is no future for recycling in South Africa. The recycling sector can't survive the 12 to 18 months it may take to stabilise global economies and oil prices.

Clear targets

Civil society has called on the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to ensure that mandatory EPR, particularly in the packaging industry, be implemented as a matter of urgency, to support the collections side of the industry with clear targets for recycling, product design and increased recycled content. 

This needs to ensure that the anticipated EPR regulations have clear directives to ensure the fair distribution of the EPR to underpin the value of recyclables. Without this commitment there is a high likelihood that the formal and informal waste sector will collapse. The impact could be the loss of over 100 000 jobs in the sector - collateral damage that would have far-reaching devastating impacts socially, environmentally and economically.

Covid-19 has taken the world by storm. Right now we're in crisis mode and the immediate safeguarding of human health must take precedence. PPE is absolutely essential for safeguarding our frontline workers and is not something we should compromise on. More broadly, however, where we can safely reduce single-use plastic consumption, we must make every effort to save our recycling sector with a longer-term vision to transition toward a circular plastics economy.

WWF is working toward building a future with no plastic in nature by 2030. This is a world where our oceans teem with marine life, rather than discarded masks, gloves, nets, plastic bottles and bags; where no human breathes the toxic fumes of burning plastic, and where existing plastics are maintained within the economy. It's our hope you'll join us in this pursuit.

*Zaynab Sadan and Lethabo Pholotho work on WWF South Africa’s Circular Plastics Economy Programme.

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