Between 5-12 million tonnes of plastic debris enters the ocean annually from land-based sources. Governments, NGOs, and industry can solve the ocean waste problem by working together, writes Thembi Tlale


Water is one of South Africa's most critical resources—yet we are continuously endangering the ecology that is the source of between 50% and 85% of the world’s oxygen. However, research has shown that South Africa’s oceans economy has potential to contribute more than R20 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2019 if we start now.

Ocean Conservancy recently announced the global launch of Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean—a solutions-oriented report in partnership with the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment that outlines specific land-based solutions for plastic waste in the ocean, starting with the elimination of plastic waste leakage in five priority countries (China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand).

The report is a signature initiative of the Trash Free Seas Alliance, an effort of Ocean Conservancy to unite industry, science and conservation leaders who share a common goal for a healthy ocean free of trash.

The report was made possible through the support of numerous partners, including REDISA (Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa), The Dow Chemical Company, The Coca-Cola Company, the American Chemistry Council and the World Wildlife Fund.

REDISA's Director, Stacey Davidson, took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Service about circularity and contributing to conserving SA's oceans.

How can local government benefit from getting involved in ocean conservation?

Having seen how the circular economy model has benefitted the South African economy and essentially dealt with the waste tyre problem, we believe that the shift to a circular ocean economy holds much promise. Circular economy thinking aims to move away from waste: prevent it rather than manage it, breaking the still prevalent linear make-use-dispose paradigm that dominates our economies. By working together, governments, NGOs, and industry can solve the ocean waste problem. Together, we can create a new, collaborative and effective way of solving the plastic waste challenge. Direct benefits of the circular economy tyre model has shown an increase in job creation opportunities, SMME support and development and a reduction in pollution and environmental damage. For example with the tyre model, 70% of waste tyres arising are now being dealt with and not ending up damaging the environment, this is up from 4% prior to REDISA implementation. In addition, REDISA has put 80% of the revenues collected into supporting the circular economy through investment back into industry.

Is it only coastal municipalities who are affected by the ongoing damage caused to our oceans?

Discarded plastic, industrial waste and unwanted fishing nets are still a growing problem for the world’s oceans, despite decades of efforts to reduce marine debris. During the recent Fifth International Marine Debris Conference it was discussed that there was a need to improve waste management practices globally. It was said that improvements to national waste management programmes not only help reduce the volume of waste in the world’s seas and oceans, but can also bring real economic benefits. The impacts of marine debris are far-reaching, with serious consequences for marine habitats, biodiversity, human health and the global economy. Ongoing damage to the oceans effects everyone and is not limited to the coastal areas. It is important that we all are part of the solution because without national buy-in, success will be limited.

How will conserving the oceans benefit SA's future oceans economy?

Conserving the ocean will have socio-economic as well as environmental benefits. Currently, one of the biggest challenges we face is ocean waste. The numbers are staggering—with an estimated 8-10 million tonnes of plastic waste entering the oceans every year globally. This means that by 2025 there will be 1kg of plastic for every 3kg of fish in the ocean. For us a healthy ocean means more than beautiful coasts and vibrant ocean wildlife. A healthy ocean supplies the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. If the ocean isn't healthy, neither are we. The oceans are among the most crucial victims of waste. Considering what an indispensable resource they are, providing the world with food (nearly 20kg/person/annum, and up to 50% of protein in some countries) and oxygen (50% to 80% of the world’s total supply), everyone should be concerned about the levels of plastic pollution and the as yet unknown consequences that will follow. REDISA has practical ideas on how to combat ocean waste, and wants to play a part in the programme.

Can you share one of your success stories?

Through our work with local municipalities such as the Eden district municipality in dealing with the waste tyre problem, we have experienced really positive outcomes.

When REDISA started working with the municipality in 2013, the municipality had for some time struggled to find a solution for the waste tyres as the landfill sites did not accept this waste. This resulted in stockpiles increasing and the tyres being burnt for scrap metal; posing a severe health risk as waste tyres are most hazardous when they are burnt in uncontrolled environments.

The municipality has seen the results of how beneficial a collaborative effort towards looking after the environment can be, especially when they are provided the support needed to meet waste reduction targets as well as educate the community about recycling and keeping their communities waste free.

Without the municipalities' support it would have been far more difficult to achieve REDISA's objective of cleaning South Africa of waste tyres. The data specific to each municipality importantly allow us to establish regionally the amount of waste tyres arising, so that effective planning for the network of depots, transporters and recyclers can be implemented. The data allow the municipalities to benchmark their progress, and REDISA is able to keep updated and provides a quarterly report that highlights how many tyres have been collected from landfill sites. Currently these tyres are collected and taken to a depot to be stored before being delivered to the recyclers and processors.

What is your strongest message to both government and private sector on this topic?

The Stemming the Tide report specifically underscores the important role of industry in driving the solutions and catalysing public and private investment to solve the problem of ocean plastic leakage. As an organisation we have shown the power of collaboration thanks to the legislative framework set out by the Department of Environmental Affairs which made the REDISA Plan possible–and our results speak for themselves. Statistics show that before REDISA existed, South Africa was only dealing with 4% of the total tyres being generated as waste. Within three years REDISA has been able to increase this to 70% and we are well on our way to increase that further by the end of 2016. Imagine how much more we could achieve as a country if the government and private sector collaborated more closely. Through continued collaboration and work with partners in government and business, and with consumers and NGOs, we will be able to build more sustainable, efficient and long-term socio-economic solutions.

Do you have any advice for municipalities in starting an ocean preservation campaign?

While preservation campaigns are vitally important, we do believe that the problem needs to be addressed at its source because once the waste becomes an issue at the end of the product life cycle, by that stage it’s too late and very costly to address. In order to do this, we recommend implementation of a circular economy approach, as opposed to the current linear economy model which means that raw materials are extracted, transported to manufacturers, and processed into various products—resulting in waste. Since the linear model is economically and environmentally unsustainable, we should be viewing the circular economy as part of the solution. The circular economy model encourages changes at the design stage of the product, which therefore results in far reduced waste, and / or waste that is more easily recyclable—meaning then that the waste has a value attributed to it and will not be as easily and quickly discarded. By ultimately reducing waste, improving national systems for waste management; and encouraging the reuse and recycling of plastics whenever possible we will be able to better address the ocean waste problem. The circular economy concept, with its 'cradle-to-cradle' life-cycle treatment of materials and energy, is a way forward that can potentially revolutionise our ability to minimize waste that otherwise end up in our oceans.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

At REDISA we believe that if we can achieve circularity, we can solve many issues in one bundle: conserving resources prevents them becoming waste; preventing waste prevents pollution and protects the environment; re-using and recovering materials creates fresh economic activity, meaning more jobs, businesses and GDP growth.

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