Plastic alternatives not in bag yet

Fishing boats are seen on a beach covered with plastic waste in Thanh Hoa province, Vietnam. Picture: Reuters/Nguyen Huy Kham/File Photo

Fishing boats are seen on a beach covered with plastic waste in Thanh Hoa province, Vietnam. Picture: Reuters/Nguyen Huy Kham/File Photo

Published Jul 24, 2018


The move by retailers to roll out compostable and biodegradable carrier bags may seem like “an excellent and practical” environmentally friendly solution but many plastic alternatives have not been properly evaluated in South Africa.

“Further scrutiny reveals 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,” said executive director of Plastics SA, Anton Hanekom.

Pick * Pay this month became the first local retailer to trial compostable carrier bags made from starches, cellulose and vegetable oils with customers at its V&A Waterfront store in Cape Town.

But Hanekom maintained that opting for biodegradable packaging would not change the “human behaviour of littering” and consumers should interrogate the “marketing jargon”.

Internationally accepted standards stipulated that such packaging must be mixed with organic waste and maintained under test-scale composting conditions for 12 weeks, he said.

“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.”

At their Waterfront launch, Pick * Pay’s director for transformation, Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, said its bag would break down after three to six months as opposed to the reported 500 to 1000 years for plastic bags. Customers could bring the bags back to the store, where they would be sent to a Pick * Pay composting facility.

“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.”

Hanekom believed that “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 create an even bigger problem rather than solving this one”.

Annabe Pretorius, a consultant at Plastics SA, said most South Africans likely did not compost at home. “We need to know what consumers will do with these bags. Will they end up on pavements, in rivers or in the bush?”

John Duncan, the head of WWF South Africa’s marine programme, recently pointed out that although South Africa had a growing recycling sector, poor economic returns or the non-recyclable items meant a large percentage of the plastic “that you use will never be recycled, even if you put it in your recycling bin.

“A better place for you to start is perhaps to take a minute to think about whether we need some of the problem plastics to start with - such as straws"

The Saturday Star 

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