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Has South Africa’s plastic bag levy been effective in reducing pollution?

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Picture: Timothy Bernard/ African News agency (ANA) – A lump of plastic is attached to a stork as it tries to fly away. There is a growing concern that sprawling informal economy has given rise to non-compliant single use plastic carrier bags that easily find their way into the waste stream, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

The other day I found myself begrudgingly paying R1 for a plastic carrier bag due to my overestimation of the size of my reusable shopping tote. Having been ages since I had to pay for a “plasteek,” I was quite shocked that a single, thin membrane of a bag, which wouldn’t hold two tubs of neapolitan ice cream, cost R1.

Shocked not only by the price but by not knowing or being told of what happens to this income?

According to the 2017/18 SARS tax statistics, revenue brought in by the sale of 2 billion plastic bags via the plastic bags levy amounted to R242 million for the year.

Source: The South African Revenue Service (SARS)

That roughly equates to the 14.5 million working South Africans each buying 138 plastic bags per a year, or over 2 bags a week.

A study conducted by the Department of Environmental Affairs in 2017 on Plastics Materials Flow (PMF) confirmed that packaging constitutes the largest component of single-use plastic waste that is generated in South Africa and that the use of single-use plastic waste is likely to increase along with projected increases in population growth and urban expansion.

The study said that growing consumer bases, in both lower and middle classes will have an immense impact on the use of single use plastics along with a growing concern that the sprawling informal economy has given rise to non-compliant single use plastic carrier bags that easily find their way into the waste stream.

Moreover, most informal settlements are situated next to the main rivers in South Africa (e.g. Hennops, Jukskei, Palmiet and Umngeni). The poor waste infrastructure and illegal dumping sites in these areas result in single-use plastic waste entering the river systems through to the ocean.

According to US online news site Patch, “in San Francisco, plastic bag use was reduced by 78 percent after a fee was instituted. Washington DC saw a 60 percent reduction of plastic bag litter in the Anacostia River following the implementation of a 5 cent fee. Ireland’s bag ban fee reduced plastic bag usage by 90 percent in the first year and raised over $18 million”.

Similar to a programme employed by the US cities and the Irish, the South African government, in an attempt to control the environmental problems posed by plastic shopping bags, introduced the plastic bag levy.

These levies collected were intended to be used for waste management and environmental initiatives, such as clean-ups and recycling programmes.

Charging for bags commenced in May 2003. Although 2019 statistics from SARS point to an overall decrease in sales of plastic bags since the inception of the levy, the levy itself cannot be attributed to this decline.

With the introduction of the levy, the use of plastic bags fell sharply across retailers, with the exception of the low-income retailer. When the price was set at a lower level, the quantity demanded rebounded.

A study published in the science journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, titled Analysis of the plastic-bag levy in South Africa found that the levy had only a short run of success and that over time, its effectiveness continued to decline.

The study found that general price increases which followed the initial price reduction induced proportionally different reactions from the consumers. In general, the consumers continued to steadily increase their consumption levels despite the plastic bag price increases.

However, very little of these taxes actually found their way towards the fight to end plastic pollution.

As of February 2022, South Africa has disgorged an average of around 80,000 tonnes of plastic into its oceans and waterways annually. This makes up 3 percent of the plastic waste generated in the country every year. Plastics SA has estimated that about 2,371 thousand tonnes of plastic waste is generated in South Africa every year.

Only 70 percent of the plastic is collected, but just 14 percent, including imported waste, is recycled. This means that around 56 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfill, to stew away for centuries, some for millennia.

A 2019 waste research report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund also found that the minimum lifetime cost to South Africa of the plastic produced that year was an insane R885.34 billion.

The amount includes damage to livelihoods and key economic industries such as fishing and tourism, clean-up costs to the government and threats to the health of the population.

“To win the war on plastic pollution, every role-player in the plastics industry needs to confront some hard truths. This includes us as the producers of plastics, but it also includes the government and consumers,” Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom says.

The South African government is fully aware of the excessive volumes of pollution and has shown a willingness to confront these issues and engage with industry stakeholders.

The Department of Environmental Affairs, for example, during a July 2019 parliamentary session, admitted that it had failed to develop competent waste management facilities, let alone recycling infrastructure.

The problem with plastic pollution arises from illegal dumping and bad waste disposal practices, combined with inadequate waste collection services. Around the country, consumers resort to dumping their waste because refuse collection services are either unreliable or non-existent.

The government can use a portion of the millions of rands raised through the plastic bag levy to boost waste management infrastructure and improve collection services.

“The consequences of our weak waste management infrastructure are not only visible in our rivers and oceans, but also cost the country hundreds of millions of rands when municipalities have to clean up illegal dumping sites,” explains Hanekom.

The taxes on plastic bags should be put to good use in improving infrastructure and service delivery. It could potentially be used to create thousands of jobs in the waste management industry and to safeguard the 100,000 existing jobs that the plastics industry provides.

“The nearly R2-billion that has been raised through the levy so far, should never have been absorbed into the black hole of our national fiscus. Instead, the levy should have been ring-fenced for its intended purpose: to develop better recycling facilities and incentivise sustainable consumer behaviour,” he says.

Several major retailers and restaurants have pledged to do away with plastic.

Woolworths began phasing out plastic carrier bags from 2020 with several of its stores now completely plastic carrier bag-free. Rival Pick n Pay is still lagging behind but has run trials on getting rid of plastic bags at its stores since 2018. The retailer also introduced new blue recyclable plastic carrier bags made from 100 percent recycled material into all stores nationally.

Most chain fast food restaurants in South Africa such as Steers, KFC and McDonalds already offered paper carrier bags but are working on phasing out other single use plastic items such as straws, sauce packets and utensils.

South Africa could take a page or two out of Kenya’s book of proper waste management as the country boasts what has come to be known as the world’s strictest plastic bag ban. The ban was put in place in 2017 to combat severe flooding, caused by plastic bags blocking waterways and drainage systems. A government-supported study also showed plastic bags were found in the stomachs of more than half of the nations cattle.

Kenyan legislation prohibits the manufacture, importation and sale of plastic carrier bags, punishable with a maximum of four years in prison or a $40,000 (R726,000) fine.

Although the levy did make a slight dent in terms of decreasing the use of single-use plastic bags in South Africa, it did not have the intended impact on overall plastic pollution, which continues to spiral out of control.

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.