The blame game: Who's responsible for the plastic pollution on the planet?

The blame game: Who's responsible for the plastic pollution on the planet?

Much of the plastic packaging that we use ends up in landfills and our oceans creating huge environmental issues. Terence Pillay asks who exactly is responsible for this scourge. 

Beach pollution / iStock
Beach pollution / iStock

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Last week we commemorated World Environment Day and World Ocean Day and for at least one day, people were reminded how important it is to protect the planet. We all have this idea that we are doing good by recycling and to be fair, it is a good thing. Everybody has to try – separate your plastic from your tin, glass, paper and regular trash and put it out in the appropriate coloured bag, but do you ever wonder where it actually goes to?

A friend sent me a very emotive video that was done by a young mobile journalist called Yusuf Omar and together with a group of young people they dealt with the hectic spill of plastic (of all shapes and kinds) and Durban’s Golden Mile after the recent heavy rains. The video, which is part of a series called Hashtag Our Stories, shows in graphic detail just how much plastic waste makes its way into our oceans and eventually on to the shore line as well and what these young people were doing was calling on businesses to take back their waste.

They basically called out all the companies that are packaging their products in the plastic that makes its way into landfills and, even worse, our oceans compromising both humans and animals. They also call out big name manufacturers who are making millions of rands in profit but aren’t investing any of it in cleaning up the mess for which they are ultimately responsible.

They also say that people often blame informal settlements and townships for the plastic pollution that ends up on our beaches but the reality is that the problem is largely due to poor service delivery, lack of education, lack of facilities and lack of adequate ways to put away the rubbish. The figure they quoted was something to the tune of eight million metric tons of plastic that ends up in our oceans every year. And they called on people to refuse the plastic, forcing producers to change.

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So the big question is: who is actually responsible? Yes, communities need to be educated and they need to take responsibility from a dumping of waste point of view, but ultimately, shouldn’t we be taking a harder line on the source of the plastic. For example, I think businesses that use plastic packaging and plastic bags should go back to the drawing board and come up with more environmentally friendly alternatives. And government should move a little faster on this legislation that they were putting forward that would ban plastic outright – in particular plastic shopping bags.

There are lots of stores now that don’t supply plastic bags or plastic straws to customers anymore and that’s a good move, but they are charging the earth for the alternatives. At the end of the day, if you want me to support your store then provide me with the biodegradable paper bags like you did with the plastic bags.

But ultimately, where does the buck stop? Is it with the manufacturers of plastic bags and packaging or with the retailers? Or is it with the individual that uses it and doesn’t recycle or discard it in a way that prevents it from ending up in our oceans? Or is it with government that doesn’t seem to have the backbone to actually take a decision on removing plastic altogether.

Let’s look at Kigali, for example, as a city they have gone completely plastic free. It is by far the cleanest city in Africa. You just do not see litter there and the whole city is behind it. Whereas here, we haven’t been nicknamed “Dirtbin” for nothing – the city looks like an absolute dirt bin. 

The fact is: we’ve become so dependent on plastic now. What did we have before? Glass? But glass has become so difficult and expensive to manufacture. The other day, somebody who works in a manufacturing plant that uses glass told me that in a factory set up, if a bottle drops and cracks they have to clear a ten meter wide area because of the risk of a shard of glass going into a food product and causing damage is so high. To stop all production and clear a ten meter area to sort out an issue like this has huge cost implications for the manufacturer.

There are a lot of small businesses now who are making the effort though. For example, if you go to a shop I know in Westville, you are encouraged to bring your own travel coffee cup and they will sell you the coffee using your own cup. They will even give you a discount on your coffee if you don’t use a disposable coffee cup. People often think coffee cups are made of paper and you can recycle them but in many cases they coat them with wax because you don’t want them to leak and then it becomes really difficult to delaminate that wax to recycle them.

On the global scene, I read an article in the Guardian this week about the US being caught out apparently selling trash. So because they haven’t been recycling properly, they just sell their trash to poor African countries that then just dump it into their landfills. So rather than processing it “state side”, they pay somebody here to dispose of it for them.

In terms of recycling, are the right people doing it? You have your middle to upper class that have the different bins with the different coloured bags and a service like DSW that comes and collects it and all is well. But if you look at the informal settlements and poorer areas where people are more concerned about just getting a roof over their heads and who don’t necessarily have the same level of collection, or formal roads and so on, it is far more difficulty to get the message of recycling across in these areas.

It would be in the interest of these communities to actually set up a recycling depot so that they can process their waste and at the same time perhaps generate some revenue as well. From an environmental impact point, this is a huge issue, but there are other global issues that need awareness as well.

The other big issues are things like climate change and what we’re actually doing about that. I read something really interesting on the climate front recently about Norway’s pension fund, which is one of the largest in the world – trillions of dollars. And they made a decision not to invest in any coal-based energy production companies with the exception of BP and Shell because of the level of investment that those two companies are making in green energy. But they are disinvesting from all other companies that are involved in the burning of coal or fossil fuels for the production of energy.

We still have such a long way to go here but let’s first start with something as small as recycling and refusing to buy products that are packaged in plastic that will eventually end up polluting and ultimately killing the planet.

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts.

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