Plastic is a useful and versatile product, but it’s harming the environment so much that we may never recover, writes Liezel de Lange.
“Our ancestors left us Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and the Acropolis. But what are we leaving our children? Plastic straws!”
This is how Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy summed up the challenge posed by the world’s enormous and tireless consumption of plastic.
“The plastic we are now manufacturing will remain in the environment for thousands of years,” she said.
The department of environment, forestry and fisheries recently held a Plastics Colloquium in Boksburg, where environmental groups and the plastic industry met to determine how the impact of plastic on the environment could be limited.
“Plastic has been with us since the 1950s and, because it is so versatile, it is used throughout modern society,” Creecy said.
“The material is waterproof, durable, versatile and inexpensive.” But it is precisely these characteristics that create so many pollution problems, Creecy warned.
Plastic and plastic products contributed R76 billion to South Africa’s economy in 2016. According to Plastics SA, up to 60 000 people work in the plastics industry.
South Africa’s consumption of raw plastic grew to 1 544 tons last year, of which up to 53% was used in the packaging industry.
“With the growth of plastic consumption, concerns about plastic pollution are also growing,” Creecy said.
A study by the Water Research Commission last year showed that microplastics are being found in our water sources.
The SA Health Products Regulatory Authority is reviewing regulations in the cosmetics industry, which uses plastic granules in products such as face wash, and the department of trade and industry is working with the SA Bureau of Standards to set regulations.
Plastic also impedes growth in our ecosystems because it weakens water absorption and flood resistance in our wetlands.