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To reduce waste, don’t ban it; make it more valuable, collectable

Late last year (December 13), The Wall Street Journal declared that the bottled water industry was facing a crisis, highlighting that “the consumer backlash against disposable plastic plus new government mandates and bans in places such as zoos and department stores have the world’s biggest bottled-water makers scrambling to find alternatives.”

After reading the article, a packaging market and technology analyst, and president of The Packaging Management Institute in the USA, Ben Miyares, mooted a few questions in his own piece in industry journal, Packaging World.

  • Isn’t the real crisis here a more global, universal one: The rising tide of pollution in our seas? Bottlers and their suppliers are not the culprits, intentionally or inadvertently discarding plastic waste. They alone shouldn’t be held culpable for it, nor responsible for its remediation. If we want to wisely address such issues, we would do well to be guided by the profound observation of Confucius, a 6th Century Chinese philosopher, who said: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
  • Would total or partial bans—or other regulatory restrictions on plastic water bottles—lessen or make the lack of PET bottle alternatives situation worse?
  • Are there no viable alternatives to single-use plastic water bottles? We’ve seen a number of them but none has yet succeeded like the single-serve PET water bottle. But that doesn’t mean they won’t. Edible containers aside, most will be dumped, properly or not, after their contents are consumed.

A South African response to the wave of anti-plastic sentiment rippling around the globe has been put forward by South African National Bottled Water Association Executive Director, Charlotte Metcalf.

She maintains it is time to find truth and balance in the myriad calls for plastics to be replaced with alternatives or degradable versions. If we don’t, we risk setting policies, formulating regulations, enacting legislation and investing in technologies that will do more harm than good.

Metcalf doesn’t dispute the fact that plastic in all its forms is one of the major pollutants of our water bodies and landmasses. Nor does she argue against the fact that ways must be found to curtail that pollution. She does maintain that outright bans, or the adoption of unproven and untested alternatives, are grossly overrated as solutions to plastic pollution. 

Consider three common alternatives: biodegradable plastics like oxo-biodegradable plastics, shop floor or counter-top water filling stations, and outright bans on plastic.

  • Oxo-biodegradable plastics

Simply stated, oxo-biodegradable plastics are conventional polyolefin plastics to which small amounts of metal salts have been added to mimic biodegradation. In truth, however, these additives only facilitate a fragmentation of the materials, which do not fully degrade but break down into very small fragments that remain in the environment, and are available for the potential for ingestion by animals.

  • Shop floor or counter-top water filling stations

In recent years, a number of packaged drinking water ‘innovations’ have been launched in South Africa including the bench-top filtering systems used in the hospitality industry (‘Grolsch’ bottle), and companies that refill containers with either filtered, treated or non-treated waters (such as water that has been through reverse osmosis and ozonated water), often inside retail outlets. 

However, they cannot substantiate their claims of providing good quality water, beating the drought (an important consideration in South Africa today), and beating plastic.  Research from the United Kingdom has proven that drinking from a refillable water bottle can be ‘many times worse than licking your dog’s bowl’ in terms of the amount of bacteria it will bring you into contact with. Additionally, most of these systems source their water from the municipal supply and therefore afford no drought relief; plus their cleaning and sterilisation cycles are water-expensive.

  • Ban plastic, let’s substitute with glass or tin

Switching to glass or tin bottles, jars, lunchboxes etc etc is not a sustainable or safe solution to decreasing the industry’s reliance on PET. Trucost, an American organisation helping companies and investors to achieve success by understanding environmental issues in business terms, estimates that substituting plastic in consumer products and packaging with alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to a total of $533 billion.

In most cases, the environmental cost per kilogram of alternative material is less than that of plastic. However, on average over four times more alternative material is needed (by weight) to perform the same function. Extrapolating to the entire consumer goods sector, over 342 Mt of alternative material would be needed to replace the 84Mt of plastic used in consumer products and packaging in 2015.This has major implications for costs and environmental impacts associated with manufacturing (such as raw material, energy and water use) as well as distribution.

“It really is time to find truth and balance in the myriad calls for plastics to be replaced with alternatives or degradable versions,” Metcalf said. “In July 2018, Plastics|SA released plastics recycling figures for 2017  showing that, for the seventh year running, plastics recycling in South Africa had continued to grow, with more than 334 727 tons recycled back into raw material. This gives South Africa an input recycling rate of 43.7% – well above that of Europe’s recycling rate that currently sits at 31.1%.

“Importantly, too, recycling is helping create jobs – even if most are informal. Plastica|SA says that plastics recycling sustained 5837 formal jobs in 2017 in the recycling factories. PETCO estimates that 85% of its bottles collected for recycling comes from the informal sector and that PET recycling creates 64 000 income-generating opportunities.

“So, I ask, what do you want to do? Switch to glass to reduce the amount of plastic used in South Africa but watch energy, carbon and water footprints increase? Or use your plastic responsibly, recycle and help retain 60 000+ jobs?

“The volume of waste – so much of it plastic – that lines our beaches distresses me. But knee-jerk reactions like complete bans, are not the answer. A holistic strategy that results in investing in solutions that encourage behaviour change coupled with the implementation of considered, well-thought through new technologies is much closer to the answer than outright bans,” Metcalf said.