Plastic bag manufacturers could possibly find themselves hot water with the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) after the Sunday Times recently reported that millions of branded plastic supermarket bags that claimed to be recycled were not.

The article also mentioned that in order “to cut costs, plastic manufacturers, known as converters, started adding chalk (calcium carbonate) as a cheap filler to the mix, sabotaging the mechanical process used to recycle the bag”.

The DEA has said it is taking these allegations seriously and will be liaising with the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) and the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) to ensure that plastic bag manufacturers comply with the regulatory requirements and product standards.

In 2003, South Africa introduced plastic bag regulations in order to address the challenge of plastic bag litter. The regulations called for thicker, more durable plastic bags to be compulsory. This specification prescribed that only plastic carrier bags and flat bags of a minimum thickness of 24 microns could be manufactured or imported into the country at a cost of 3 cents (now 6 cents) a plastic bag.

“In terms of the regulations, the plastic bags ought to be recyclable, thereby making them more environmentally friendly,” the DEA said.  The new thickness also makes them more reusable.

Since the inception of the 3 cent cost in 2004, National Treasury has been collecting the Plastic Bag Levy. The money collected goes into the National Revenue Fund and National Treasury allocates a portion of it to the DEA for regulation of the thickness of plastic bags, the DEA explained.

“The collected levy is not ring-fenced and can only be allocated to recycling programmes following submission to the National Treasury of an approved and clear business plan on the implementation of such programmes,” the DEA said. The money is also used to support recycling initiatives.

Monitoring plastic waste

A contribution of R22.4 million will be allocated to the NRCS for research on plastic bags over the next three financial years. As part of its mandate, the NRCS conducts compliance on plastic bags and enforces the stipulated specifications.

The DEA has also established a Waste Bureau which monitors the implementation of Industry Waste Management Plans, and has published a call for the development of these plans for recycling purposes and diverting waste from landfills.

The department said it has also allocated a budget of R155 million towards regulation of the thickness of plastic bags, and to support recycling initiatives over the next three financial years.

“The waste recycling economy will not only eliminate threats to the environment, but also positively contribute to the growth and development of South Africa’s economy,” the DEA said. “It is through this economic ingenuity that the DEA will also contribute to sustainable development and inclusive green economic growth thus facilitating employment creation, infrastructure and skills development, and strengthening Small Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) in the waste management sector.”