A shopper carries her groceries to her car in plastic bags. Opting for biodegradable packaging will not change the human behaviour of littering. File picture: Mike Blake/Reuters

With the scramble to introduce environmentally-friendly solutions to SA’s unofficial ‘national flower’, we need to question whether companies are green-washing the problem - and where our plastic bag levy is going, says Georgina Crouth.

The month of July’s all about savings: whether it’s saving for our financial future or saving Planet Earth. On July 3, International Plastic Bag Free Day, Pick n Pay’s flagship Waterfront store piloted a compostable shopping bag as an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags, which have become the poster child of marine pollution. The one-day trial was aimed at gauging customer reaction to inform “further industry discussions on alternatives to plastic bags”.

The carrier bags, made from starches, cellulose and vegetable oils, were offered to customers for free alongside cardboard boxes, at R5 a box, for one day only. It’s the first time such bags have been offered in the country, but they’re widely available in Europe, North America and Australia.

“Given this option is still in its infancy in South Africa, there are several considerations to look at before they could be introduced at scale. Currently, for example, there are no integrated large-scale composting facilities available,” said Pick n Pay’s director for Transformation Suzanne Ackerman-Berman.

Speaking at launch, Pick n Pay chairman Gareth Ackerman said: “Much progress has been made since 2003 to encourage customers to move away from single-use plastic carrier bags, but much more needs to be done. ”

Detailing the work PnP has done since 2003 (a year before the plastic bag levy was introduced), Ackerman said retailers would not be able to make any kind of sustainable impact on the problem without proper government support. About R2-billion has been generated for Treasury coffers through the levy but it’s not ring-fenced for environmental causes and charging shoppers about 60c a bag has not changed behaviour.

“Funds generated from this levy have not improved the environment and created jobs, as was promised at the time. These funds need to be put to proper use - not as a tax collection mechanism but as a fully funded programme to make a real environmental impact and create much-needed jobs.”

But while retailers are anxious to be perceived to be on the right side of the green cause, Plastics SA says plastics don’t litter, people do, and change starts with the individual.

“Opting for biodegradable packaging is not going to change the human behaviour of littering. Consumers need to commit to protecting our environment and educate themselves on the facts around packaging alternatives, as well as the benefits of effective plastic recycling and the correct disposal of materials they no longer need. The marketing jargon promoting these replacement materials should be researched before boldly switching to alternative materials,” says Anton Hanekom, the executive director of Plastics SA.

“Recognising an opportunity to gain significant marketing and PR mileage, some retailers and brand-owners were quick to respond to these public outcries (about single-use plastic) by introducing alternatives such as paper bags and piloting a compostable bag made from starches, cellulose, vegetable oils and combinations as an ‘environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bags’ to replace all plastic carrier bags, barrier bags and fruit and vegetable bags.”

Hanekom says it might seem an excellent and practical solution, but many of the “plastic alternatives” have not been properly evaluated.

“Offering a compostable carrier bag to consumers sounds good in theory; however further scrutiny reveals that these bags and other biodegradable plastic products will only degrade in a properly-managed composting facility and definitely not in the normal suburban compost heap.”

Internationally accepted standards for compostability (EN 13432) stipulate that such packaging must be mixed with organic waste and maintained under test scale composting conditions for 12 weeks.

“If not kept under ideal conditions, these bags will not biodegrade and are most likely to end up in one of the country’s landfills (also not ideal composting environment) or worse - in the recycling stream where it will contaminate the entire stream and render more material unrecyclable.”

South Africa’s plastics recycling industry provide jobs for more than 52 000 people who collect waste that is mechanically recycled into new raw materials. Last year, more than 313 700 tons of plastic material was recycled.

“Rejecting a ‘fit for purpose’ plastic packaging material with a low carbon footprint, in favour of an alternative material that is imported, more expensive, with a higher carbon footprint and potentially uses scarce food resources as raw material could creating an even bigger problem, rather than solving this one.”

John Duncan, an independent environmental consultant, agrees with Hanekom, saying there’s a difference between home compostable and industrially compostable, which only compost under very specific conditions.

“We need to interrogate these claims - the technology around biodegradable and compostable is not there yet and we don’t know if it’s the solution. It has its challenges.

“Plastic bags are a very small component of plastic pollution - they’ve become the flag-bearer but they’re not the biggest issue. To suggest we should be recycling is not the solution. We need to use plastic more wisely - and we can definitely do without bags.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected] Follow Ask Georgie on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ConsumerAgonyAunt/ and on Twitter @georginacrouth