By Colleen Dardagan

Millions of rands collected by the government from levies on plastic bags are "missing" and facilities to recycle the plastic waste have yet to get off the ground.

To date, only R90-million out of an estimated R360m in levies collected from the plastic manufacturing sector since 2004 can be accounted for by the National Treasury.

And the Section 21 company Buyisa-e-Bag, set up by the government to build buy-back centres to recycle the plastic, has been described by the industry as "a dismal failure".

What started out as a joke in Parliament has turned into a cash cow for the authorities.

According to a media report, in August 1999, when former environment minister Valli Moosa told MPs he might ban plastic bags, "our national flower", it was something he said off the top of his head - as he later acknowledged.

Once the remark made it into the press Moosa was soon made aware of how much the public supported the idea.

The proposed ban was later transformed into a ban on thin plastic bags and, to deter members of the public from discarding their plastic bags, anything up to 35c or more is now charged for carrier bags at supermarket tills, of which 3c - increased to 4c last month - was supposedly set aside for recycling and environmental protection projects.

But since millions still throw their bags in the bin - or use them as bin liners - all that has happened is that bags in landfill sites are thicker and take longer to degrade.

The executive director of the Plastic Federation, David Hughes, said the packaging and plastics industry had been trying to get some of the money for the environmental projects for some time.

He said only two out of the proposed eight new buy-back centres paid for by the levy were up and running.

"The Treasury has collected up to R360m on the levies, of that R90m was allocated to Buyisa-e-Bag over the same period and the rest they just kept for Treasury purposes.

"Remember, the bag levy is now called 'an environmental tax' which can be likened to a 'sin tax'- to be gathered and used by Treasury at its whim.

The money is not ring-fenced in any way and it is not kept sitting there waiting for industry or others to use it on environmental projects."

The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs spokesman, Albi Modise, said eight new recycling centres had been built and were set for handover to respective municipalities and more than 34 000 people had been involved in approximately 40 clean-up campaigns in several provinces.

"The slow progress is due to a variety of reasons - some under Buyisa control, others very definitely not, such as getting permits, environmental impact assessments, electricity and water hook-ups and getting municipalities to lease land," he said.

But Hughes described the responses by the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs on how the money was being used as "a bit of a fob-off".

"One can only dream how much more could be done from an enviro-management point of view if we could get our hands on the bag of revenue."

Sandra Bragazzi, a director at Premier Plastics in Gauteng, said the company had paid over R60m to Sars since 2004.

Questions posed to Sars were referred to the Treasury.

Treasury's Lindani Mbunyuza confirmed that since 2004, R90m had been handed over by Sars, with R82m passed on to Buyisa-e-Bag.

"The difference was used for other environmental protection activities," she said.

Hughes said the sustainability of the buy-back centres was questionable. "You have to collect a lot of plastic bags before they offer any value. Buy-back centres have to include other kinds of recyclables such as other plastics, cans, cardboard, Tetra Paks, paper and glass to make them viable.

"The buy-back centre model has been designed to help the poor and they have been set up in very poor municipalities who don't have the capacity to run effective post-consumer waste management operations."

Hughes said, in his view, the Treasury was flouting the original agreement on how the money from the levy was to be spent.

In a recent document released by the Plastic Converter Association of South Africa on the challenges facing the industry, Buyisa-e-Bag is described as a "dismal failure".

Chairman of Buyisa-e-Bag, Shirleigh Strydom agreed there were problems.

"I will admit that.

"It's going to have to take intervention from the government," he said.