Cape Town - Concerned environmentalists warn that plastic pollution in the oceans is so pervasive that even the deepest place on Earth, the Mariana Trench, which is more than 10000m below sea level, has been affected, says the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

At least 6000 tons of waste a day is produced in Cape Town, and each person produces between 1.7kgs and 2kgs of waste a day. That means an average adult produces their weight in waste at least every six weeks.

In a recent research paper, it was asserted that only 16% of plastic is recycled in South Africa, with the rest ending in landfills. Items such as lightweight chip packets and sweet wrappers are picked up by the wind and blown into the stormwater drains and urban canals. Much of the plastic waste in our oceans, rivers and waterways is due to littering, inadequate waste management and overflowing landfills.

Around 10% of plastics that is thrown away, which is the equivalent of 8 million metric tons a year, ends up in the ocean. This discarded plastic makes up the greatest amount of marine litter and is the equivalent to one garbage truck of plastic goods dumped into the ocean every minute.

These are some of the key findings in the first of a four-part series on plastic that will be released this month by the WWF.

South African Plastics Recycling Organisation spokesperson Annabé Pretorius said waste management needed to improve.

“Humans generate waste and part of every new human settlement needs to make provision for waste,” she said.

“We need to be less wasteful as people and waste needs to be managed. Consumer goods and consumer packaging are not manufactured to end up in waterways nor the ocean. They get there because the waste is not managed properly.” 

According to the first Plastic File released by the WWF, “Marine animals often get entangled in floating plastic or abandoned fishing nets.

“Large or small plastics such as ropes, balloons, plastic bags and fishing line are also common culprits for painful entanglement. Many sea creatures also swallow plastics by accident or because they mistake it for food. Seabirds eat small bits of plastic and turtles can mistake a floating plastic bag for a jellyfish.”

Plastics SA hosted more than 100 beach clean-ups along South Africa’s coastlines last month.

Sustainability manager at Plastics SA John Kieser said beach clean-ups were important for recycling efforts.

“The purity of our oceans is a crucial issue for our country.

“However, it is important to remember that clean-ups do not offer a long-term solution and are not meant to replace regular waste management,” he said.

“The aim is to draw attention to litter and general mismanagement of waste. Civic action must be followed up by effective waste management reforms. Improved waste collection and management must be established everywhere.

“We also need to look at what we are throwing away.”

The WWF said retailers needed to remove single-use plastics, which included removing plastic bags from till points and promoting the use of reusable bags.

They could also choose not to stock products with plastic microbeads, or avoid selling items that could not be recycled.

Woolworths said it was phasing out single-use plastic bags completely by 2020. Pick n Pay introduced a bag made of vegetable matter that can be used for compost earlier this year, while Checkers uses a 100% recyclable shopping bag.

In the 2018/2019 budget, the tax on plastic bags was increased by 50% to 12 cents a bag.