What sustainable options are available to replace single-use plastics and what are their advantages and disadvantages?
It’s no surprise that the world has woken up to the disadvantages and negative impact of single-use plastics. More and more, we are seeing reports of the devastation that products like plastic straws and bags are causing to oceans and wildlife the world over, and South Africa is no exception. In SA, many large corporates are heeding the calls of regular citizens to move away from plastic and nowhere is this more evident than in the food packaging industry.
This demand for eco-friendly options has given rise to many plastic alternatives and solutions aimed at reducing the devastating effects of single-use plastics, all of which have their pro’s and con’s, but can become fairly confusing and technical at times.
Single-use packaging has become deeply embedded in our daily lives. And it’s all but impossible to avoid. Product labelling can be confusing, or absent, leaving consumers unsure which materials, symbols and logos represent options that are genuinely sustainable.
Social media and the media are awash with footage of the devastation plastic packaging is having on the natural world, which is creating a headache for consumers wanting to do the right thing. People looking to lessen their impact are faced with a confusing array of materials, symbols and technical jargon.
It’s for this reason that we would like to provide a deeper look at some of the primary ‘solutions’ posed for our plastic pollution crisis.
Possibly the most popular remedy to the ever-escalating single-use plastic problem, recycling is often touted as the environment’s saving grace. Can we really recycle our way out of the pollution crisis?
While recycling is something we should all be doing, there are some very real drawbacks to its efficacy, such as:
- Recyclable plastics are still not biodegradable, so when they do enter the environment they are virtually indestructible. A whopping 32% of plastic packaging – nearly a third – leaks into natural ecosystems (source: The Ellen McArthur Foundation). Meanwhile, the average recycled content in plastic products is only 17%.
- While South Africa has a very good recycling rate compared with most countries, it is also one of the worst offenders when it comes to marine pollution. While we are fortunate to have extensive coastlines, our waste management infrastructure is poor and large quantities of plastic waste pollute our rivers and oceans. A 2015 study quantifying plastic waste entering the sea ranked South Africa as the 11th worst offender of marine pollution in the world, coming in after huge countries like India and the United States.
- Not all plastic is recyclable. Indeed, non-recyclable plastics comprise a high portion of the plastic waste which is found on our beaches, including polystyrene containers, lollipop and earbud sticks, sweet, biscuit and chocolate wrappers, chip packets and straws. (source: Chikita, UCT, 2017)
- There are also a huge number of different plastic materials and blends, which make them even harder to recycle while creating confusion for consumers.
- Plastic also usually degrades in quality every time it is recycled and can usually only be recycled a couple of times before becoming waste. This is called downcycling – where the material is recycled into lower quality products until it can no longer be recycled and inevitably ends up in landfill or the environment.
- It is important to note that recycling in South Africa is a strong industry which creates many jobs and some materials, like PET, do have the capacity to be recycled much better than others. But many problematic plastics need to be controlled and even banned and have no place in a waste-free and circular economy.
- What about the production process? Disposal is only half the problem, recycling makes us think that it’s OK to use plastics because we can just recycle the products but this only takes half of the problem into consideration. Plastics are made from fossil fuels and the oil drilling and fracking required to extract them can also be terrible for the environment.
One of the most confusing materials on the market are oxo-degradable plastics. While they are soon to be banned in Europe under the EU’s new plastic directive, no such legislation exists in South Africa and these materials are increasingly entering the local market.
Oxo-degradable plastics are conventional non-biodegradable plastic materials which contain a pro-oxidative additive. This is supposed to trigger biodegradation of the plastic in the presence of heat and UV light. However, many experts believe that oxo-degradable materials merely fragment into microplastics, and do not actually biodegrade at the molecular level. They also break down at such a slow rate that they could never be suitable for composting.
While these materials claim to be recyclable, plastic recyclers are very concerned about the effects of the additives on recycling batches. This means they can only be sent to landfill.
Manufacturers of oxo-degradable plastics, and other additive-mediated plastic materials, often promote their products as biodegradable, despite not being able to prove these claims, which misleads consumers.
Many companies, especially in the food and beverage industry, are turning to plant-based, renewable and compostable materials to reduce plastic pollution. These materials include paper, wood, bamboo, sugarcane and corn starch. Within this category are compostable bioplastic products which are designed to break down in composting conditions.
Catherine Morris, MD of food packaging company GREEN HOME, pioneered the introduction of compostable packaging in South Africa back in 2007. She points out that compostable packaging is in sync with natural cycles of growth and biodegradation that have existed and evolved for hundreds of millions of years. “These materials are part of the circular economy, in which nutrients and materials are cycled in a waste-free loop.”, says Catherine.
But compostable products are not a silver bullet. They don’t always biodegrade well in marine or land environments and often need large-scale composting conditions to break down, which may not be available. Separating compostable products from similar looking plastic products also poses a challenge. On the other hand, plastic covered in food residues often can’t be recycled, making composting an ideal solution for food packaging if we can get the sorting process right.
Increasing composting infrastructure could also provide solutions to some of South Africa’s other problems, beyond reducing plastic pollution. South Africa currently mismanages its organic waste, sending most of it to landfill where it rots and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. About 40% of the waste currently sent to landfill in South Africa is organic waste. This represents a huge opportunity. By diverting organic waste (including compostable packaging) to composters and other organic waste recyclers we can minimise waste, lower greenhouse gas emissions and create green jobs. The newly formed Organic Recycling Association of South Africa – ORASA – holds the vision of diverting all organic waste from landfills within the next ten years.
Compostable bioplastics like PLA can also be recycled, although currently there is not nearly enough capacity for this in South Africa, or even globally.
So, what is the solution then?
Firstly, we must always strive to reduce what we use. Avoiding packaging altogether is first prize. There is no doubt that we can all consume less in our lives.
Secondly, we should look to reuse the things that we do need and finally, if it must be disposable, it should be compostable and be able to enter back into natural ecological cycles once we have no more use for it.