The dangers of plastics to water security


July of each year has been declared the Nelson Mandela Month of clearing our rivers from pollution, most, by plastics. Nobody is more disgusted at plastic pollution than those of us who every day has to use plastics to carry our goods and foods.

It is distressing to see plastic products washed up on beaches and littering the landscape. But the call to ban plastic products is a simplistic response to a complex problem. What’s required is a rational solution to the genuine crisis of plastic pollution, not an emotional reaction. Something that many of those leading the call to “wage war on plastic” fail to understand is the terrible impact that alternative materials have on the environment.

It is tempting to imagine a world without plastic as some sort of environmental utopia. But, when used in consumer goods, plastic uses four times less energy than alternative materials such as metal, paper and glass. In fact, alternatives to plastic packaging would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions.

The fact is that plastic – if disposed of correctly – is one of the most environmentally friendly products there is. And this is where the solution to plastic pollution can be found: in the correct disposal and management of plastic waste. We are encouraged that government is prepared to have tough conversations regarding the challenges ahead.

All over around the country – from eThekwini to Ekurhuleni to Johannesburg to Tshwane to Cape Town – citizens resort to dumping their waste illegally because basic waste removal facilities are either inadequate or absent. A study commissioned by the Department of Environmental affairs in 2012 showed that South Africa generated 108 million tons of general waste in 2011, of which only 10% was recycled.

The consequences of our weak waste management infrastructure are not only visible in our rivers and oceans, but also cost the country hundreds of millions of rand when municipalities have to clean up illegal dumping sites. We need government to urgently fix South Africa’s inadequate waste management facilities and improve infrastructure for collection and recycling. In doing so, it can create thousands of new jobs while safeguarding the 100 000 formal and informal jobs that the plastics industry currently provides.

In the coming weeks we need to embark on a sustained campaign to persuade government and citizens to join us in the war on plastic pollution by joining the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) in cleaning the rivers. We support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s quest to clean up South Africa, but it can only happen if there is a recycling revolution in this country.

Plastic – if used correctly and disposed of properly – is a product that has immense value to society. It has a smaller carbon footprint than the alternatives, and it is more cost effective to produce. This means a lower cost of living, more economic growth and more jobs. A rational conversation about plastic pollution recognises the positive attributes of plastic and focuses on how to manage plastic waste. The time has come to have that rational conversation, and we look forward to leading the discussion.

To win this fight, we need to build strong collaborative and meaning full partnerships. Government, industry and the consumer needs to work together. It is true that the dangers of plastics and more specifically microplastics, is increasingly grabbing the world’s attention, according to Henk Bouwman, Professor of ecotoxology at the University of the North-West.

The actions of humans on the environment can be quite devastating. In terms of referring to wastewater there are so many places all around the world, where this water is pumped straight into the ocean, streams and rivers, and thus polluting our resources. Such an action has a huge negative impact on the environment. It obviously means that marine environments are damaged together with fisheries. This action can also drastically impact on the availability of water for our homes. It is possible that global shortages will appear in the future.

South Africa is located in a semi-arid region of the world. The scarcity of water is a major challenge that demands serious intervention by means of awareness programmes, according to the United Nations (UN). The United Nations (UN) has embraced the function of education and training to give all people respect for water as a finite, vulnerable and valuable resource. This has heightened the knowledge that the multiple benefits and ecological services of water cannot be underplayed.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced a review into the potential risks of plastic in drinking water after a new analysis of some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands found that more than 90% contained tiny pieces of plastic. A previous study also found high levels of microplastics in tap water.

In the new study, analysis of 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across 11 different brands found an average of 325 plastic particles for every litre of water being sold. So, the best thing we can do to protect our waterways is try to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream in the first place. The good news? There are many small ways you can have a big impact.

Ninety percent of the plastic items in our daily lives are used once and then chucked: grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Take note of how often you rely on these products and replace them with reusable versions. It only takes a few times of bringing your own bags to the store, silverware to the office, or travel mug to Starbucks before it becomes habit.

Each year, close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed in the trash. Carry a reusable bottle in your bag, and you’ll never be caught having to resort to a Poland Spring or Evian again. If you’re nervous about the quality of your local tap water, look for a model with a built-in filter.

Those little plastic scrubbers found in so many beauty products—facial scrubs, toothpaste, body washes—might look harmless, but their tiny size allows them to slip through water-treatment plants. Unfortunately, they also look just like food to some marine animals. Opt for products with natural exfoliants, like oatmeal or salt, instead.

Not only is it healthier, but making your own meals doesn’t involve takeout containers or doggy bags. For those times when you do order in or eat out, tell the establishment you don’t need any plastic cutlery or, for some serious extra credit, bring your own food-storage containers to restaurants for leftovers.

New toys and electronic gadgets, especially, come with all kinds of plastic packaging—from those frustrating hard-to-crack shells to twisty ties. Search the shelves of thrift stores, neighborhood garage sales, or online postings for items that are just as good when previously used. You’ll save yourself a few bucks, too.

It seems obvious, but we’re not doing a great job of it. For example, less than 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled. Confused about what can and can’t go in the bin? Check out the number on the bottom of the container. Most beverage and liquid cleaner bottles will be #1 (PET), which is commonly accepted by most curbside recycling companies. 

Single-serving yogurts, travel-size toiletries, tiny packages of nuts—consider the product-to-packaging ratio of items you tend to buy often and select the bigger container instead of buying several smaller ones over time.

Invest in a zippered fabric bag and request that your cleaned items be returned in it instead of sheathed in plastic. (And while you’re at it, make sure you’re frequenting a dry cleaner that skips the perc, a toxic chemical found in some cleaning solvents.

Though we can make a difference through our own habits, corporations obviously have a much bigger footprint. If you believe a company could be smarter about its packaging, make your voice heard. Write a letter, send a tweet, or hit them where it really hurts: Give your money to a more sustainable competitor.


Ike Motsapi is the Principal Communications Officer for the Department of Water and Sanitation.