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Paddling away from plastic

Swimming legend Sarah Ferguson, who is organising a public open ocean swim early next month in aid of marine conservation, shows some of the plastic she picked up off the beach in just 30 seconds. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Swimming legend Sarah Ferguson, who is organising a public open ocean swim early next month in aid of marine conservation, shows some of the plastic she picked up off the beach in just 30 seconds. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 7, 2022

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Durban - It’s time to go back to glass.

So said swimming legend Sarah Ferguson while walking along Durban’s beaches, devastated at the amount of plastic and other litter that was washed down by last month’s floods.

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“We need to eliminate our plastic productions and go back to the deposit system. That is the way forward.”

Swimming legend Sarah Ferguson walks along the Durban beach, littered with plastic after the recent floods. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

When the floods hit, Ferguson was swimming off Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) on her epic swim from Durban to Cape Town, which she is scheduled to resume in November. It is to highlight plastic pollution in the ocean.

In the meantime, she is organising the June 4 Breathe World Oceans Day Swim at Durban Beach Club at Point Waterfront.

“A sea swim where all the money raised goes towards marine conservation is a first-of-its-kind in Durban, and that is exciting. After last year’s Covid-19 restricted event, we are pushing this year’s event and are looking forward to welcoming as many swimmers as possible to participate.”

Going back to issues of glass and plastic, Ferguson said it may, unfortunately, cost a bit more for producers and consumers.

“But that is the way forward to protect our oceans and to protect ourselves.”

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Canoeist Stephen Cohen, who founded Durbanites Against Plastic Pollution, shared Ferguson’s views on the retail sector needing to up its game in promoting the recycling of plastic.

“Our water management systems are just not built to manage this level of plastic waste. And it looks set to increase,” Cohen recently told the Independent on Saturday.

“The private sector must come to the party if the government does not.”

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Cohen said vague commitments around recycling appeared to be “a highway to nowhere”.

“Not unless there are major consumer changes. It’s not going to happen through litter booms and beach clean ups and increasing recycling targets from 50 to 60%.

“We have to get serious about implementing policies and supply chain systems.”

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He lamented that a lot of retailers “are going the other way”.

Cohen also said there needed to be more financial incentives for people who walked the streets collecting plastic litter.

“Given the time it takes, they earn less than the minimum wage.”

He called on retailers to “take responsibility for incentivising consumers”.

Plastics SA, which represents all sectors of the South African Plastics Industry, said it did not agree that stricter legislation on retailers would be the proverbial “silver bullet” that will solve South Africa’s waste crisis, “although the government’s introduction of mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) under Section 18 of the National Environmental Management Waste Act (NEMWA) which came into effect in South Africa on May 5, 2021, is seen as a major step forward in the right direction”.

“EPR means that producers of packaged goods are responsible not only for health and safety issues associated with their products but also for the management of their post-consumer packaging waste, including collection, sorting and recycling.

“These policy objectives include changes for upstream (e.g. design for recycling) and downstream (e.g. plans for increased collection and higher overall rates of recycling), which we are optimistic will soon begin to bear fruit in South Africa and have a significant impact on the amount of packaging waste that is collected and effectively recycled.

“Another benefit of the new Section 18 EPR is that it makes a concerted effort to integrate waste pickers into a working and shorter recycling chain.”

The organisation said South Africa’s current waste collection and recycling system was still broken.

“South Africa needs to become even more serious about diverting waste from landfill and allow recyclers access to post-consumer waste streams if we are to improve our recycling rates and grow our circular economies. 34% of households in South Africa still do not have access to formal waste collection.

“As a result, the waste that could have been collected and recycled is either sent to landfill or ends up in the environment where it becomes dirty and contaminated.”

The statement said that in Europe, recyclables were removed from the waste stream as early as possible to ensure they retained their value.

“In South Africa, 64% of recyclables still comes from landfill and other post-consumer sources. Our recyclers have to invest in expensive wash plants to clean the material collected.

“We need an effective separation-at-source system across South Africa in all municipalities to prevent valuable waste from being sent to landfill, or worse yet, ending up in our rivers or oceans because there is no effective waste management system in place.”

Plastics SA agreed about the need to eliminate all unnecessary packaging ‒ regardless of the material ‒ and to reuse where possible.

“However, it is important that we take an evidence based approach to ensure we do not replace existing, fit-for-purpose packaging with more harmful alternatives.

“Because plastic is a lightweight material, it floats and is therefore often the most visible pollutant.

“This has caused the plastics industry to have a big target on its back despite the fact that we have been working hard to reflect year-on-year increases in the recycling rate with less plastic waste going to landfills.

“However, the industry’s efforts alone are not going to win the war on plastic pollution. It is vital that producers, brand owners, retailers, government and consumers join forces and work together around the collective goal of creating a litter-free environment.”

Plastics SA said clean-up teams from the local community, led by coordinators, would be employed over the next two months to help remove macro and micro pieces of litter from the major beaches and rivers in the Durban area.

For further information on the June 4 Breathe World Oceans Day Swim, visit www.breatheconservation.org.

The Independent on Saturday

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