Plastic polluters should face same penalties as oil polluters: WWF

Plastics drift into the ocean, strangling turtles, suffocating seabirds and filling the stomachs of dolphins and whales with waste until they die of starvation.
Plastics drift into the ocean, strangling turtles, suffocating seabirds and filling the stomachs of dolphins and whales with waste until they die of starvation.
Image: Gallo images/iStock

Plastic polluters should face similar consequences and penalties as those responsible for oil spills, environmentalists say.

Lorren de Kock, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) SA project manager for the circular plastics economy, said plastic pollution had reached crisis levels and polluters should be held to account. She added that the pollution was not simply a consumer issue.

Explaining a report she co-authored with Zaynab Sadan, a project officer of the circular economy programme at WWF, De Kock said that eradicating plastic pollution needs a systemic approach in SA.

“The reality is that plastic pollution is a complex societal issue requiring interventions at each stage of the life cycle. These include the critical need for a reduction in production and consumption, substitution with alternative materials and delivery models such as reuse and refill, more investment and support for recycling and appropriate disposal at end of life,” she said.

She said interventions by environmentalists such as beach clean-ups did not curb the pollution, and that it needs to be stopped at source.

“A case in point is the recent phenomenon of nurdles washing up on Cape beaches. While beach clean-ups are well-intentioned, they do not tackle the source of the problem. A situation like this should be similar to an oil spill, where there are penalties and polluting companies are held to account,” said De Kock.

The report, titled “Plastics Facts & Futures Report”, sought to find ways in which the way plastic is produced and used can be fundamentally redesigned.

It also identifies plastic products beyond packaging that need to be given attention in SA, among them sanitary towels, nappies, cigarette butts and certain types of fishing gear, all of which are not well managed and add to plastic leakage into nature.

The comprehensive, 134-page WWF report is aimed at researchers, industry actors, policymakers and interested individuals. It explores the environmental and socio-economic effects of plastic pollution, with a focus on plastic packaging as a major contributor.

Admitting that eradication of the damage done by plastic on the environment is not an easy task, de Kock said no single organisation can solve the plastic pollution challenge by itself and that an inclusive, collaborative process is needed.

“Multiple stakeholders across the plastics value chain are needed, with a strong focus on prevention rather than mitigating effects once they have already occurred.

“Addressing the plastic pollution crisis must not be done at the expense of other increasing environmental problems, but if done right, it will result in net positive environmental outcomes for our planet across a range of environmental and social stressors,” she explained.

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