ISWA

President's Blog

11 Feb 2019 11:12 Age: 127 days

Guest Blog | Turning off the Plastic Tap in Developing Countries Needs More Than a One Size Fits All Solution

Category: ISWA BLOG

 

Prof Linda Godfrey has over 20-years of sector experience and lectures internationally on solid waste management in developing countries, including the social, economic and environmental opportunities of “waste” within a circular economy context. She currently leads the Waste Research Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap Implementation Unit on behalf of the Ministry of Science and Technology, a unit tasked with implementing South Africa’s 10-year Waste RDI Roadmap. She recently published a paper "Waste Plastic, the Challenge Facing Developing Countries—Ban It, Change It, Collect It?" discussing the three-way approach to tackling plastic waste challenges in developing countries.

Countries around the world are currently reviewing their position with regards to single-use plastic products. This is largely due to the explosion in awareness around marine plastic pollution and the active engagement by society on the topic. According to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, marine litter is now considered to be in the league of global environmental issues such as climate change, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity.

 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, published on World Environment Day 2018, entitled “Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability”, showed that more and more countries are implementing bans on single-use plastics. In fact, 29 countries in Africa have already implemented some form of local, regional or national legislation against single-use plastics, typically plastic carrier bags. However, this is shifting to include a wider array of single-use plastics, such as food containers, cups, cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers and balloon sticks. 

 

This raises the question, what should the response of developing countries be to this growing environmental problem? The short communication, recently published in Recycling (2019), argues that there is no one single solution to addressing the leakage of plastic into the environment, but that the solution is likely to be a combination of three approaches. These three approaches include (i) banning single-use plastics, as many countries and cities are doing; (ii) replacing petroleum-based single-use plastics with alternative bio-benign materials, such as paper, glass or biodegradable plastics; and (iii) improving waste collection and sending the collected waste to engineered landfills, or recycling or recovery centres, thereby ensuring that plastic has little opportunity to “leak” into the environment. Countries, cities, and businesses must find their “position” within these three options, depending on their local conditions and on what they have control over.

 

Product bans are typically adopted by governments where they are unable to improve waste collection services and where they have little control over the design of products in their market. Bans are considered a near immediate solution to the plastic problem, but are viewed as a threat by the plastic sector, due to perceived loss of revenue and potential job losses. For developing countries facing difficult economic climates, this is a very real consideration. Furthermore, if poorly enforced by government, single-use plastics will still find their way into the market, but with no end-of-life solutions. Product bans, particularly of food packaging, must be weighed up against the potential risks to food and water security, an issue particularly relevant in developing countries where safe municipal water supplies are often lacking.

 

Product replacement is typically adopted by business where they have little control over improving waste collection services, and no appetite for reducing product consumption. Product replacements with environmentally benign alternatives are also often seen as a threat by business, particularly those that are unwilling or unable to diversify into alternative materials. However, such shifts to alternative materials must be informed by sound evidence. Examples of switching from plastic carrier bags to “biodegradable” plastics or to certain paper bags, has shown that many of these products are not truly biodegradable, or only biodegradable under very specific conditions, often unattainable under normal environmental conditions, or with available local technology.

 

The leakage of plastic into the environment is ultimately an issue of human behaviour. Improving waste collection systems must be a priority in developing countries. Anything less than a 100% collection coverage means that waste will always “leak”, leaving governments with little apparent alternative than to implement product bans, and businesses to explore product replacements. However, while plastic bans may create a visible difference in plastic litter, it does not solve broader waste management issues. Without proper collection systems, residual waste streams, such as other packaging waste, household hazardous waste, organic waste or building rubble, still continue to litter the environment. Improved collection also provides opportunities to grow local reuse, recycling and recovery economies, which are difficult to develop with high levels of dumping. Given the constraints facing municipalities in developing countries, businesses need to explore ways of partnering with local municipalities to improve current waste collection and disposal systems.

 

In conclusion, there is no one single solution to addressing the leakage of plastic into the environment. The solution is likely to be a combination of these three approaches. However, in implementing these solutions, it is imperative that governments and businesses, particularly in developing countries, fully understand the potential consequences of their decisions.


About Prof Linda Godfrey

Prof Linda Godfrey is a Principal Scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Associate Professor at Northwest University in South Africa, and holds a PhD in Engineering from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. With over 20-years of sector experience, she currently heads up the Waste Research Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap Implementation Unit on behalf of the Ministry of Science and Technology, a unit tasked with implementing South Africa’s 10-year Waste RDI Roadmap. She has provided strategic input to a number of local, regional and international waste and circular economy initiatives for the United Nations, European Union, South African Government Departments, Academy of Sciences, International Solid Waste Association, universities and businesses. She lectures internationally on solid waste management in developing countries, including the social, economic and environmental opportunities of “waste” within a circular economy context. She has published extensively in the field.