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Speech by Minister Barbara Creecy at the opening of the Plastics Colloquium

Birchwood Conference Centre, Boksburg, Gauteng Province, 22 November 2019

Executive Mayors
Chief Executives and Management of Plastics SA, Consumer Goods Council of South Africa and other private companies and SMMEs
The leadership and management South African Waste Pickers Association, African Reclaimers Association and other Civil Society Organisation
Members of Academia and Research Organisations
DGs, and the management of government departments and public entities
Municipal Managers and leadership of SALGA
Members of the media

Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me first start by acknowledging and thanking the efforts of Plastics SA and the Consumer Goods Council and the south African Waste Pickers Association for working with civil society and government to plan this Plastics Colloquium. Furthermore, I would like to thank everyone has set up an exhibition. I know I did not get to meet all of you yesterday but I will try to see those of you I have not seen later today.

A word of appreciation also goes to all who participated in the various pre-colloquium activities that have greatly assisted us in informing this event and ensuring that all of us  become participants in the plastics discourse.

We are here to have conversations about plastic in the environment. Plastic has been around since the 1950s and its versatility has ensured its use in almost every aspect of modern life. The proliferation of plastic products has been attributed to the material being water-proof, durable, versatile and cheap.

Plastic products are used by almost every sector of the economy. Various sectors of the global economy benefit from numerous plastic use applications. Projections are that the global plastics economy is growing at a rate of 4% on an annual basis.

The South African economy benefits from the plastics economy. The building and construction, agriculture, automotive, electrical and electronic, mining and engineering sector all continue to benefit from this thriving plastics economy.

Plastics and plastic products industry contributed around R76bn to South Africa’s economy in 2016 – and according to Plastics SA, 60,000 people are employed in the plastics industry of which 47,000 are employed in the plastic products manufacturing sector.

South Africa’s annual virgin plastic consumption grew to 1.544 million tons in 2018. About 53% of South Africa’s total plastics consumption goes into the packaging sector and most of this is for single use packaging applications. Plastic packaging is extensively used to prevent food waste, protect products against breakage, and extend the shelf life of products.

With the large and growing consumption and use of plastic, is a growing concern about plastic pollution. The very attributes that have made plastic such a successful product, are making plastic a highly problematic pollutant. A study conducted our Department  in 2017 on Plastics Materials Flow confirmed that packaging constitutes the largest component of plastic waste generated in South Africa. 

Microplastic particles are found literally everywhere. A 2018 Water Research Commission report documented the presence of substantial amounts of plastic particles in surface, tap, and ground water sources in South Africa. 

Plastic pollution is also damaging important eco-system services: those crucial services nature provides free of charge. Plastic waste undermines the flood absorption and water storage capacity of our wetlands. It threatens catchments, river systems and estuaries and the crucial services they provide for people and nature. 

A more recent 2017 study ( by Jambeck et al ) goes further to argue plastic waste presents a major socio-economic development challenge, which affects biodiversity, infrastructure, tourism and fisheries livelihoods.

Ladies and Gentlemen efforts to discourage and minimise the use of plastics to minimise their effects on the environment and human health are not new in our country.

Twenty years ago we passed the National Environment Management Act (NEMA) and the National Environment Management: Waste Act to provide the necessary legislative framework to prevent and to protect the environment from plastic pollution.

By the early 2000s we had already put Plastic Bag Regulations in place to address the highly visible plastic carrier bag pollution problem. The plastic bag levy was introduced in an effort to control consumer behaviour and attitudes to plastic bags.

The National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS) of 2009, put emphasis on the need to Re-use, Recycle and Recover waste, including plastic waste.  Following the adoption of this strategy government at every level set out to minimize waste  and establish recycling initiatives.

Both government and the private sector invested in infrastructure development in the form of  Waste Buy-Back centers, transfer stations, beneficiation centers and treatment plants. Support was made available for SMMEs and co-operatives organize, skill and employ informal waste collectors. Significant community awareness campaigns were conducted in schools, communities and through the media.

Government has not been alone in tackling the plastic waste problem.  Industry has embarked on a range of voluntary schemes that have sought to encourage collection, return and recycling.  These include innovative programmes to educate school children and use schools as collection points in communities where formal waste collection remains intermittent.

PETCO and the South African Alliance to end plastic waste have been in the forefront of many of these initiatives and  I have noted with much interest the ambition to have a plastic waste- free South Africa in ten years time  In terms impact, these voluntary schemes reported in 2018 that 46.3 % of all plastic waste was being collected for recycling with 63% collection of recycling of PET bottles.

On balance, Ladies and Gentlemen the evidence before us suggests that much has been done. But I am sure we all agree much, much more needs to be done. That is why we are gathered here today. We want to combine our wealth of collective experience,  our examples of good practice and the substantial goodwill amongst all our partners to relook at this complex and difficult problem. 

What we need to help us achieve the ideal of a plastic waste-free SA by 2030 is a comprehensive plan to tackle the problem countrywide.

This plan must begin with households, and consumers who are conscious of why plastic litter damages our environment and who want to do their bit to help. Schools and school children must be harnessed to assist in the battle so that young citizens become aware of their environmental responsibilities while raising much needed funding for their schools.

Our anti plastic waste campaign must be supported by an ever-improving system of municipal refuse collection, which promotes separation at source. We must prioritise rural municipalities that lie along our major rivers so we combine our resources to protect our freshwater ecosystems and stop plastic from entering our oceans.

There must be a clear role for informal waste collectors, whom I am told number as many as 60 000 in our country. These men and women must be given back their dignity. They must be systematically registered, organised, trained, equipped and protected from harsh, insanitary and dangerous working conditions.

Municipalities and other public facilities must assist in creating space for buy back centres, transfer centres and processing facilities. Private -public partnerships must ensure we have basic equipment in these centres including conveyor belts, washing facilities, baling machines and forklifts as well as basic shelter and ablutions for those working there.

We need an efficient system to assist in the registration and authentication of new products so that research and development is incentivised.  Government must help market new products for building, paving, road construction and so on to our sister Departments in the Human Settlements and Infrastructure space.

To guide us in how we develop the system, we need to go back to two important concepts: the first is the concept of the circular economy. The second is the concept of extended producer responsibility.

One of the most attractive solutions inherent in the ‘circular economy’ to how we help turn ‘waste into worth’. The circular economy therefore requires integrating the entire product life cycle from raw material extraction, through product design, use and ultimately recovery and recycling or re-use.

This means we have to start to design plastic products for re-use and recycling, we have to think about the implications of this for standards and certification and ultimately for our regulatory environment.

An important consideration will at all times be how, over time,  we reduce certain plastics from our value chain, particularly those we term single use. We do need as a collective, to agree, that there is not enough demand to absorb all these articles in the recycling chain.

Of major concern here is the issue of micro plastics. These are examples of where end-of-life considerations did not influence Product design resulting in the regulator needing to exercise regulatory powers to phase out or restrict the use of material. The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority is considering the revision of the Cosmetics regulations meanwhile SABS and DTI are working on standards.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics are newcomers to the SA plastics scene. They need to be properly researched and understood. If they are to have a place in our value chain they need to be regulated with appropriate registration and standards.

Last but not least we are going to have to mobilise our citizens to understand the problem plastic waste is creating for people and for nature.  We are all going to have to change our behaviour: those of us who separate our waste at home must wash out containers before we dump it; those of us who like fast food need to demand alternative products to package our burgers, chicken  and our coffees; when we shop we must take our recycled shopping bags and not demand new plastics. We must stop throwing waste out of car windows or dropping it where we eat.  Those of us who are in government must ensure communities have a responsible means of disposing of waste if they do not have weekly collection. We must teach our children to love their country and their environment.

Ladies and Gentlemen yesterday when. I was leaving many of you told me how happy you were for the opportunity to meet many others who are working on plastic waste and how important this is as an opportunity to take our partnership forward.

This Colloquium is part of an on-going initiative – it not the end. Today we have a platform to converse, discuss, debate, think, listen and jointly agree on our master plan. From tomorrow we must begin the implementation.  All your views are important, so please engage actively and ensure that your voice is heard in shaping South Africa’s plastic future.  What we decide here will have an impact on the generations that follow us. Let our children and our grandchildren not find that today we failed in our task.

I thank you


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