I like to think that I’m plastic conscious, but a glance through my house reveals an uncomfortable truth. I live a plastic life. Computer keyboard and mouse, cameras, shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes, food containers, vacuum cleaner, electric plugs and cables, cat’s sand tray – all and a lot more are plastic.
Yes, there’s plastic and there’s single-use plastic but still, I don’t have a leg to stand on. As a plastic consumer, I’m partly responsible for the plastic catastrophe that grips our planet. I read that eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. It’s even reached the deepest depths, as American explorer Victor Vescovo discovered earlier this year when he dived 11 kilometres in a pressurised submersible to the floor of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. There, in addition to animals unknown to science, he found plastic trash.
Wrapping ourselves in plastic
Earth Day Network (EDN) makes no bones about the existential threat of this crisis. “From poisoning and injuring marine life to disrupting human hormones, from littering our beaches and landscapes to clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is now threatening the survival of our planet.” We’re wrapping ourselves in plastic.
Is there any hope? Well, yes, there is. A hope built on Green Bricks, the latest creation by local environmental NGO, WildTrust, and developed in conjunction with Use-it, an award-winning, Durban-based, non-profit company that’s a leading innovator of waste-beneficiation programmes.
Green Bricks, I discover, are made from a mix of sand, glass and, until now, unrecyclable, multi-layer, post-consumer plastic waste. I need to see these for myself and arrange a visit to the site of the first Green Brick plant – WildTrust’s recycling depot in Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
Exorbitant costs preventing recycling
There, the NGO’s recycling manager, Hanno Langenhoven shows me around. It’s a sobering tour. Hanno points out huge piles of waste that cannot be recycled. There’s multi-layer plastic packaging such as washing-powder and pet-food bags, and those transparent bags used for ready-to-eat salads, and the plastic foam and polystyrene trays that are standard containers for so much fresh produce. And lots more besides. And the heaps are just a fraction of the thousands of tons of rubbish entering the environment every day.
I recall some of the statistics on the EDN website. More than half of the world’s plastic discarded in 2015 was plastic packaging – that’s more than 141 million metric tons.
About one trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually across the globe – that’s nearly two million every minute. The amount of bubble wrap produced annually is enough to wrap around the Equator ten times. If numbers don’t convey much of a picture, this last fact certainly does.
As Hanno and I continue our tour, a truck arrives, its bin piled high with plastic garbage. “It costs more in fuel to transport that stuff here than what it’s worth on the market,” Hanno says. I’m beginning to realise that recycling is not the magic bullet we all conveniently think it is. Even the tins and bottles on the site aren’t profitably recycled, Hanno explains, as the recycling market is in decline because of high costs. Apparently, a lot of the stuff we put in our recycling bags to be taken away by whomever to wherever often just ends up on landfill sites. Who are we trying to fool?
“It’s not just about recycling, reusing, repurposing, reducing,” says Hanno. “We must also refuse.” And yet, Hanno adds, plastic has important uses, but this calls for a more nuanced approach. “For example, most of us don’t need straws for drinking. But what about the paralysed person who drinks only through a straw?” He points to my car, saying that without the plastic components, it would be a lot less safe to travel in. And, of course, plastic enhances food safety. It’s a catch-22 situation.
The value of wastepreneurs
By the time I get to see one of those robust Green Bricks – not coming out of their moulds as the machine that processes the plastic is undergoing modifications that day – I’m wondering how sustainable the project is?
If recycling plastic is so costly, how can an NGO afford to produce these bricks? The answer, Hanno tells me, lies in companies that generate large volumes of plastic waste taking responsibility for that waste. But how does that translate into Green Bricks? “By those companies becoming plastic neutral. That’s the space you enter when you remove from the environment and/or landfill the same amount of plastic that you put into the environment.”
It works like this. Companies pay an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fee for the plastic they use in their operations and packaging. WildTrust uses the EPR fee to source unrecyclable plastic packaging through its network of wastepreneurs (people who collect waste and barter it for goods or payment) and recycling schools, villages and businesses.
This plastic is used to produce Green Bricks to support social projects not only in South Africa but across the continent. Some wastepreneurs can even barter plastic they pick up for the Green Bricks. It’s an exceptional win-win solution. Just think of benefits such as job creation, a circular economy, a clean environment and much-needed housing.
We need a culture change
The first company to sign up is Wedgewood Crafted Confectionery, a family-owned business that produces arguably the best nougat on Earth. They’re situated in a beautiful rural area not far from the Howick depot, so I climb into my plastic-enhanced car and head that way.
“It’s our responsibility to become plastic neutral,” says Wedgewood director Paul Walters.
He talks about the universal truth of doing what’s right. “It boils down to values, and whether you’re a net contributor. A giver or a net taker. As a family business, we believe in doing the best we can.”
The impact of their brand on the environment is of great concern to the family. “The whole plastic thing is massive,” Paul says. “It needs a culture change.”
Discussing the plastic problem with WildTrust CEO Andrew Venter a year ago, Paul started to realise that putting a value on non-recyclable plastic waste could make a huge difference. “If people in poor areas are paid, say R2/kilogram, to collect plastic waste, all of sudden they see its worth and the environment gets cleaned up.”
The agreement with WildTrust involves Wedgewood paying for every kilogram of plastic that comes into the factory and that goes out of it. This includes bottles containing cleaning liquids, packaging materials, and labels. Both the amount of plastic used and the offset via WildTrust are audited to ensure an even equation. “We want our business to be sustainable, and we’re intent on making positive contributions so that our children have a future,” Paul says. “Increasingly, brands are becoming what the customers are saying they are. You just have to look at online reviews. Brands need to deliver what they promise. If not, your business will not survive.”
Green bricks are just the start
Nevertheless, says Paul, Wedgewood has a long road ahead. “We’re at the start of an exciting journey to becoming net contributors and to do what is right for the planet, for the community, and for our own people. We’ve made mistakes but we’re committed to getting things right.”
We stroll through the receiving depot, where he shows me a wall of shelves filled with plastic-packaging materials, labels and containers. In the despatch area, scores of boxes of plastic-wrapped nougat packed in plastic containers await shipment. Paul tells me that in the food sector, because of hygiene and safety requirements, plastic is unavoidable. “We use about 20 000 kilograms annually,” he says. “Big companies generate a massive amount more than that. But imagine if more manufacturers were to do the same as us? Eventually, and as more people see value in waste plastic and pick it up, we’d get to a critical mass and the problem of plastic litter would become a thing of the past.”
The Green Bricks project is just a start. “Going forward, as technology evolves, there will be lots of other applications for plastic waste,” Paul explains.
I’m reminded of something someone once said, ‘Technology got us into this mess; technology will get us out of it.’ In the meantime, I’m upping my efforts to refuse unnecessary plastic that ends up as refuse.’
Watch Victor Vescovo’s dive to the bottom of the Marina Trench in the Pacific: