Plastic represents one of the fastest- growing categories of materials used and disposed of in South Africa and is defined as a priority sector by government, but environmental concerns about the packaging solution remain, Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom tells Engineering News.
The plastics chain in South Africa employs more than 60 000 people; the industry generates a combined turnover of about R50-billion a year, with the country consuming about 1.375-million tons of plastic a year, he says.
“Modern plastic packaging has made life easier in many ways, hence the high consumption of plastic products. However, such convenience has come at the cost of the environment, as increased environmental awareness in recent decades has brought this packaging solution under the spotlight,” Hanekom adds.
But he highlights that, with the increasing need for lightweight packaging solutions in South Africa, the use of plastic will continue to be a growing trend in the packaging sector, despite its environmental disadvantages.
“Representing roughly one-third of municipal waste in South Africa, packaging symbolises the challenge of waste in modern society. Used once and then promptly discarded, plastic packaging seems to have a short-lived presence in our lives as it is rushed from factories to landfills,” says Hanekom.
Plastic packaging has also received harsh criticism, with accusations of health dangers levelled against it. There are claims that the chemical building blocks used to make plastics may be responsible for harming people and the environment, says Hanekom.
Meanwhile, Plastics SA held a one-day conference – Plastics: The future for Growth – in March this year at the Propak Africa Exhibition, at the Nasrec Expo Centre, in Johannesburg. Issues relating to the growth of the plastics industry, its sustainability and the recycling of plastics were discussed.
During the conference, oxobiodegradable plastics and their feasibility as an alternative in the plastic-pack- aging industry were also discussed. The vast majority of the attendees felt that oxo- biodegradable plastics were not an option. As the use and publicity surrounding degradable plastics increase, so does the confusion surrounding the environmental claims put forward.
As a result of insufficient or incorrect information, consumers often base their decisions on foreign, poorly researched or emotional articles. Each country needs to find its unique solutions to litter, municipal solid waste and poor human behaviour, states Plastics SA.
“Plastics recycling is an integral part of South Africa’s economy, which we need to grow. Over the past few years, South Africa has recycled more than 100 000 t of plastic bags, wrapping and film every year. Recycled plastic film is used to make new plastic bags, refuse bags, agricultural products and building products such as water pipes, builder’s film, fencing and decking,” Hanekom points out.
He adds that one of the challenges faced by the plastics recycling sector over the past decade has been the building of confidence in the technical integrity of recycled material and demonstrating its ability to perform as a viable alternative to virgin plastics. Of greatest concern is the possibility that a proportion of recycled plastic will contain oxobiodegradable material. This could result in changing the characteristics of the material and may lead to a failure of products as degrad- ation occurs, resulting in the hindering of market acceptance, which will lead to reduced value of recycled material in South Africa.
Plastics SA mentions that oxobiodegradable additive suppliers continue to claim that the recycling of packaging films is not viable and that the switch to oxobiodegradable packaging is the ultimate solu- tion. However, the industry body highlights that separation facilities cannot distinguish between the various packaging films and oxobiodegradable, compostable and standard plastic bags, as they all look the same on a conveyor belt.
“It is, therefore, precarious to advertise oxobiodegrad- ability when the product has no testing data to validate claims that it degrades in a landfill or compost facility according to the widely accepted international standards for biodegradability (for example, EN 13432). Oxobiodegradable products cannot claim compostability or biodegradability. If they break down into small pieces, the plastic debris accumulates in the environment and the potential for ingestion by animals increases. It is, therefore, crucial that any environmental claims are backed by sound science and research.
“As an industry, it is better to recycle the material into long-term products than use additives which fragment and ultimately waste the energy value of the plastic materials. This is not an environmentally responsible situation. Local solutions are being developed to recover the energy at its end-of-life stage when it does not make any sense to recycle the product any further,” says Hanekom.
The organisation notes that another concern about degrad- able, biodegradable and oxobiodegradable packaging is that the product is composed of nonrenewable fossil-fuel-based inputs and there is little difference with regard to energy and resource use, compared with conventional disposable packaging.
If biodegradable and oxo- biodegradable packaging are meant to break down in a landfill environment, as they are largely promoted to, the products will not be recovered through waste management and recycling initiatives, resulting in a loss of resources in the same way these resources are lost if they are not recycled.
However, Hanekom says the plastics industry recognises its responsibility regarding waste management, especially litter, and intends to solve the problem together with government and other stakeholders. The South African plastics industry welcomes and supports all innovations which are aimed at preventing or reducing any environmental impact or contributing to the optimal use of resources.
Plastic plays a major role in delivering and sustaining the quality, comfort and safety of modern lifestyles; the impressive ratio of cost to performance also means that people in all income groups can enjoy these benefits, concludes Hanekom.