Urgent need to end plastic pollution

A sculpture titled “Giant Plastic Tap” by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong outside the fourth session of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution in Ottawa, Canada, this week. | DAVE CHAN/ AFP

A sculpture titled “Giant Plastic Tap” by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong outside the fourth session of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution in Ottawa, Canada, this week. | DAVE CHAN/ AFP

Published Apr 28, 2024


Durban — From ice cream containers to forks and shopping bags, the ubiquitous use of plastic threatens to overwhelm our planet.

This week UN member states will meet in Canada to hammer out an agreement to end plastic pollution, with the target of finalising an international plastic pollution treaty by the end of this year.

A study published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances (see science.org for the full report) has pinpointed some of the major brands responsible for plastic pollution across six continents. The researchers, who used a team of more than 100 000 volunteers to catalogue over 1.8 million pieces of plastic waste, found that 56 companies were responsible for more than 50% of branded plastic waste globally.

The top five brands globally were The Coca-Cola Company (11%), PepsiCo (5%), Nestlé (3%), Danone (3%), and tobacco company Altria (2%), formerly Philip Morris, accounting for 24% of the total branded count.

Among the 56 companies which accounted for more than 50% of plastic pollution were the Bakhresa Group (which includes food and beverages and packaging under its umbrella), Unilever and British American Tobacco.

Several plastic waste collections were carried out in South Africa for the survey. The researchers said the extent of the problem around the world made it imperative for international laws to govern the plastic tsunami.

While the penultimate round of negotiations are under way, research commissioned by WWF, an independent conservation organisation and the global non-profit Plastic Free Foundation (PFF), shows that citizens around the world support “strong global rules” to end plastic pollution.

The Rising Tides III Report is the third round of public opinion polled on international action to address plastic pollution. It was conducted online in 32 countries (including South Africa) by Ipsos on behalf of the two organisations. The survey was done mainly online with 24 727 respondents aged between 16 and 74 years old.

Based on the results, WWF and PFF have urged governments to act on the overwhelming public support by “agreeing on binding global rules to reduce plastic production, ban and phase out the most harmful plastic substances and products, improve design for reuse and circularity, and ensure safe waste management”.

Results show that 90% of respondents support a ban on chemicals used in plastic that are hazardous to human health, wildlife and the environment. Plastic products should be labelled so it is clear how to responsibly sort them for reuse, recycling or disposal, according to 88% of those polled.

Some 87% require manufacturers and retailers to provide reuse and refill systems. Plastic that cannot be easily recycled must be banned in all the countries in which they are used, say 87%, the same number of people who believe the amount of plastic produced globally must be reduced.

Eighty-six percent require new plastic products and packaging to contain recycled plastic. The ban on unnecessary single-use plastic products like shopping bags, cutlery, cups and plates is supported by 85%.

A total of 84% believe plastic manufacturers must pay a fee that goes towards increasing the reuse, recycling, and safe management of waste.

The UN Environment Programme (Unep) says “humanity now produces 430 million tons of plastic each year, two-thirds of which is contained in short-lived products which soon become waste. Some of that plastic winds up in the food chain, where it has the potential to harm human health.”

It says close to 10 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s and that seven billion tons have become waste, filling up landfills and polluting lakes, rivers, the soil and the ocean.

Countries have implemented an array of programmes to curb plastic pollution. In the early 2000s South Africa introduced a plastic bag levy to curb the use of what was dubbed the country’s “national flower“ because of its pervasive presence, fluttering in the wind, stuck in trees and on fences.

Globally, Rwanda has been the frontrunner in the war on plastic. In 2008 the country banned the use of plastic. This is strictly enforced: anyone caught using plastic faces about six months in jail time. Canada has also declared war on plastic and a ban on single-use plastics, including cutlery and straws, is likely to come into effect before the end of this year.

WWF says that “right now, single-use plastic makes up 60% of all the plastic being produced and 70% of ocean plastic pollution. This needs to stop. It’s time we turned single-use into zero-use”.

The UN meeting in Canada ends on Monday and the final round of negotiations on the plastic pollution treaty takes place in South Korea in December.

Sunday Tribune