Plastic Bag Regulations: public hearings


27 October 2000
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

This Report is a Contact Natural Resource Information Service
Taking Parliament to People, and People to Parliament


The aim of this report is to summarise the main events at the meeting and identify the key role players. This report is not a verbatim transcript of proceedings.

27 October 2000

Documents handed out:
Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT): Report on Comments Received


The Portfolio Committee held public hearings on the proposed regulations under Section 24 of the Environmental Conservation Act (73/1989): Plastic Bag Regulations. The proposed regulations were published in the Government Gazette of 19 May 2000 (No.21203, GN 1994 of 2000) for public comment. The aims of the regulations are to "restrict production of very thin non-reusable plastic bags that are indiscriminately dumped into the environment and to promote recycling by specifying a minimum thickness for plastic shopping bags." (DEAT report)

The hearings began with a presentation from the Director-General of the DEAT, Dr Crispian Olver on the aims of the regulations. Dr Olver began by saying that when the department drafted the regulations they knew it would be controversial so these public comments are critical in paving a way forward. Since the regulations had been published in the Gazette, the department had received 99 written submissions. The final recommendations to the Minister would be based on the hearings today and the Nedlac discussions with industry and labour. Dr Olver briefly went over the aims of the regulations (see above) and then passed the floor to Jerry Lengoasa, the Chief Director of the Environmental Quality and Protection Division at the DEAT.

Mr Lengoasa stated that the policy foundation for these regulations was the National Waste Management Strategy. Plastic bags, said Mr Lengoasa, are the most visible pollutant in South Africa and these regulations are just one part of a widespread effort to curtail litter. These regulations are needed to give effect to the policy and legislation already in use. The regulations would require that by January 2001 no one could produce or distribute plastic bags of less than 30 microns (the current weight is about 17-20 microns). By June 2001 no bag could be less than 80 microns.


Nampak, a producer of high-density plastic bags, holds a market share in excess of 50%, manufacturing over 4 billion bags per annum. Unfortunately, their equipment is not capable of producing 80 micron bags. A shift to this density would mean a retrenchment at their firm of 600 employees. Nampak currently exports around $10 million worth of bags per year, but their plans to expand their export division is on hold pending the passing of these regulations. Nampak brought to the table the following alternatives.

The first alternative was a Collect-A-Bag program similar to the Collect-A-Can program which has been so successful. Secondly, imports of plastic bags must be stopped for many of the bags imported from Asia hover around 6 microns and would make the regulations useless. A third way would be to find a way to give used plastic bags a market value, thereby encouraging the public to retrieve them as has been the case with bottles. Finally, there is a need, according to Nampak, of creating an awareness of the problems associated with littering.

In conclusion, Nampak noted that plastic bags are still the most convenient, cost effective, environmentally friendly packaging product on the market today. A shift to a 30 and 80 micron density bag would not be feasible, as the 30 micron bag has the same strength as a high-density 17 micron bag.

Plastics Federation of South Africa (PFSA)

The PFSA is a body that represents all stakeholders in the plastic industry in SA. In the plastic check out bag sector there are currently 52 companies providing 3800 jobs and with a value to the market (from start to finish) of 1 billion Rand. The problem with plastic bag litter, said the PFSA, is not the density of the bags. There is a lack of proper waste management, low levels of awareness and a 'throw away culture' among many South Africans. The plastic bag constitutes no more than 2 or 3% of total litter in SA and these regulations would defy the global trend towards plastic packaging. Switching to a paper alternative would have adverse effects on both the economy and the environment. An example of the environmental problems with paper bags is that they require 50 times as much water in the production process.

According to the PFSA there are really two options. One is to ban the plastic bag completely, which is what the draft regulations really intend to do by making 80 microns the legislated minimum. Option two would be a moderate increase in bag thickness, of around 25 microns. Not only would this option keep jobs, it would create jobs by leading to such programs as the Collect-A-Bag project. It would also require the joint commitment by industry and government to educate the population, which the industry would be interested in looking into. The PFSA does not support the regulations.


Transpaco is a medium-sized plastic conversion company in the carrier bag industry. While they agree that litter is a substantial problem in SA, they object to the regulations as they do not provide an effective solution to the problem at hand. In order to look at the environmental impact of a product, one must take a much more holistic approach and look at the entire process of production rather than just the finished product. The Transpaco plant does not have the capacity to produce 80 micron bags and if the regulations were promulgated it would mean the loss of 300 jobs at 3 Transpaco factories. One would have to question the logic of job losses when the South African economy is in the state that it is currently.

What is needed according to Transpaco is a long-term solution. A culture of recycling and reuse has to be cultivated among the population. One way would be to increase the size rather than the density of the bags. This would enable more things to be placed in one bag, leading to a reduction in the number of bags each individual requires.

Laughton & Co

Laughton & Co (L&C) are one of the oldest manufacturers of packaging products in SA. They gave a brief history of the shifting trends in the packaging industry, most notably the shift in the 1960s from paper to plastic. The reason for this shift in the 60s was because of consumer preferences related to cost-effectiveness in the industry. The representative from Laughton & Co also wanted to stress the growing international trend towards plastic packaging. L&C also produce paper packaging and they have seen this part of their company decrease significantly because of reduced demand for paper packaging.

L&C asked that focusing on plastic bags alone is a simplistic view, a more holistic approach is needed to manage the waste problem. L&C asked if these regulations will eventually lead to a banning of plastic en masse?

At the end of the day, according to L&C, it will be the poorest of the populations who will be most affected by these regulations. Adding thickness is "crazy" as it simply creates larger waste. The representative stated that his dream is a 6 micron bag that has the strength of the 17 micron bag today. One must look at the predicted job losses to see the effects these regulations will have. In his company there will be a job loss rate of 33%, a turnover reduction loss of 50% and a machine investment loss of 75%.

A1 Plastics

A1 would not be affected immediately as they already produce a 30 micron bag but a shift to 80 would have a negative effect on their business as well. They proposed that a levy be charged on producers to fund recycling programs and that they would be committed to such a program.

R & B Packaging

The representative from R&B packaging stated that the highest micron density they could go on their existing equipment is 25 microns. As part of the clothing industry they are hamstrung as it is not possible to package clothing in paper bags. As a small player in KwaZulu-Natal, the gentleman pleaded with the Members to note the effect on the 'little guy'. R&B would have to fire workers and all the existing machinery would go to waste.

Charles Benn

Mr Benn represented a group of packaging companies in East London. In one of his plants there is 10 million Rand invested, 70% of which is specialized equipment for the production of carrying bags, ranging from 12 to 30 microns. The shift to an 80 micron bag would make it impossible for this group of companies to continue in the business.

According to Mr Benn, the problem in SA is not plastic bags, it is jobs and money. It is a pathetic state of affairs when industry has to plead for their lives to government. No one can be without plastic. Our industry, said Mr Benn, cannot be put out of business because of a litter problem.

One solution Mr Benn proposed was a case study in Namibia where private contractors are hired to deal with the waste management. This program is also used in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Mr Benn also noted that the proposed regulations would be impossible to police and administer. The difference between 25 and 30 microns is negligible but the financial implications on the industry are huge. The masses need to carry bags at cheap prices and these regulations will put an end to cheap carry bags.

Ms Verwoerd (ANC) asked what is the total profit being made in the plastic bag industry. She also commented that it seemed that industry were viewing this as the government's only anti-litter program, which was most definitely not the case. She also noted that it was distressing to hear the glib way in which everyone has to move in one direction because of "global trends". In terms of the Namibian example, this may work in urban areas, but much of the litter problem is actually found in rural areas. Finally, Ms Verwoerd asked how many bags of the total produced were being recycled.

The PFSA answered the first question by stating that they do not know what the profits are in the plastic bag industry but that the public companies are struggling. The Federation agreed with Ms Verwoerd that the further you move from urban centers, the more difficult and expensive recycling programs become. This does not mean that they cannot be done though. In terms of recycling, the PFSA noted the proud tradition of plastic recycling in SA - in use now for over 25 years. There are currently over 100 companies involved in the plastics recycling industry and the estimated total of bags recycled is around 30%. The Collect-a-Can program is now the world's largest collector of cans and employs over 38,000 individuals.

Mr September (ANC) stated emphatically that it should not be perceived among industry that the government takes the employment situation lightly. The question though is how to handle the litter problem. His question was to what extent are factories/companies prepared to contribute to the collection of cans rather than simply the recycling.

Ms Semple (DP) asked how the plastic bag is the most environmentally-friendly packaging product considering all the information she has heard on its negative effects.

Mr Grove (ANC) asked what proportion the plastic bag industry is of the entire plastics industry.

Dr Olver (DG-DEAT) went over the what he saw as the key points in the presentations so far. He focused on 3 points that had come up throughout the presentations:
(i) Plastic is the most environmentally-friendly packaging product.
What is missing from this analysis said Dr Olver is any consideration of visual pollution and the effect of the pollution of the townships and their quality of life. Has the industry taken into account the job losses in the tourism industry because of lost tourism due to visual pollution?
(ii) The emphasis on disposal has been placed on the consumer and the government.
Industry has consistently placed the burden on cleaning up SA on other people, shifting responsibility away from the producer. The trend the Department had hoped to see was a more responsible attitude among producers and distributors. What has been said in the hearings so far indicate that industry thinks it is others' responsibility to clean up the mess. Is this the case?
(iii) Job losses in the industry.
Industry has not given the Portfolio Committee and the public correct information about the job implications of these regulations. They talked a lot, said Dr Olver, of job losses in their area but failed to mention the possibility and probability of job creation in the alternative product industries that would be created in their stead. What the department has found is that the demand for carrying bags is static - therefore a shift to an alternative product would not decrease the demand. The department also found that the alternative products are more labour intensive, leading to more, not less jobs, in the carrying bag industry following the transformation.

Dr Olver noted that the DEAT is mindful that there has been a lot of investment in machinery in the industry and he asked the industry for information on the current life span of the plants in use. This could have an effect on the length of the phasing-in period for the regulations.

Dr Olver commented that he was disappointed that industry had not come up with a viable alternative to the regulations. The idea to shift to a 25 micron bag is silly as there is little difference between a 20 and a 25 micron bag in terms of recyclability and strength. The department needs a concrete, well thought out alternative from industry if they are being asked to shelf the regulations.

Peter Willis - The Natural Step

Mr Willis began his presentation by asking all the stakeholders in the room where they thought they were going in the long term. According to Mr Willis the discussion has been very narrow and short term focused, debating about litter, jobs and profit. In the bigger picture, litter is a low-level sustainability issue. The world is currently faced with a decrease in life-supporting resources (soil, water) and a concurrent rise in the demand for these resources. It seems like we are running out of options, that we are faced with a zero-sum game. What needs to be reached is the beginning of a sustainable society. The Natural Step is an organisation that attempts to convince industry to agree on a number of fundamental principles that will allow us to act today to reach our goals tomorrow.

The System Conditions:
In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…
1 …. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust;
2 .… concentrations of substances produced by society;
3 .…degradation by physical means.
In the sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine . . .
4 . . . Their capacity to maintain themselves and their dependants in good health;
5 . . . Their sense of community and security;
6 . . . Their capacity for self-actualisation.

A Systems Approach from The Natural Step (1)

· Think Long-Term: Will we be using fossil-fuel based plastic bags in the sustainable society?
· Think Upstream: What matters is what we cause to be introduced into the natural system. (e.g. fossil fuels, non-natural compounds).
· Recycling - or rather downcycling - a plastic bag once before dumping it does help a little, but . . .
· Does downcycling encourage us to continue our dependence upon substances that we will have to move away from sooner or later? (e.g. fossil fuels, synthetic compounds)
· If so, are we wise to invest in downcycling?
· How might we move our shopping around in the sustainable society? i.e. in compliance with the System Conditions.

Fairest Cape
Ms B Jenmann said that South Africa is unique because it has a strong first world component and as well as being part of the developing world. She recommends a greater emphasis on recycling and the use of non-plastic bags. Currently there is not much plastic bag or plastic container recycling done because there is not the proper infrastructure in place. There are many small towns around the world that have very efficient waste management practices (i.e. Windhoek), so why is our waste management so poor? There is a need to clarify what we mean by "education" and to set specific goals towards this aim. The Provincial and National Departments are responsible for instigating these good practises, not NGOs. Ms Jenmann said there is a need to change our attitude about waste and come up with creative ways to phase out plastic products. She notified the members that she does not support a total ban on plastic because the goal is unattainable at the moment. Instead she suggests working towards decreasing plastic usage and subsequent demand.

Wildlife and Environment Society

Mr P Dowling from the Wildlife and Environmental Society talked about visual degradation associated with litter, and the harmful psychological effects this has on the human spirit. Job loss may be experienced in the short term but this happens throughout history, for example the workers who made quill pens experienced job loss when new inventions came forth. If small towns like "Douglas" can rid themselves of plastic bag waste so can big countries like South Africa.





At this point Ms Kerrie Tucker (MP of Australian Provincial Parliament) noted that South Africa is not unique in this problem. Around the world plastic bags have become symbolic of many concerns regarding the environment and our place within it. She said we must not separate our concerns with the environment from our concerns with society and societal well-being. The Australian plastic bag industry first considers focusing on reducing and reusing, with recycling being a last step. She agreed with Mr Willis that the industry needs to take responsibility for the pollution it creates. She is also interested in more research and development being done which looks at creating plastics from other sources.

Chairperson Ms G Mahlangu informed all the participants that the committee is very concerned with jobs and will not forget how people are affected by the actions taken by members.

Woolworths cannot support these regulations as the increased costs associated with higher density bags would mean that the consumer would bear the brunt of the cost.

Pick n' Pay
Pick n' Pay will also not support these regulations for the same reasons as Woolworths. The 17 micron bag currently in use costs 27 million Rand per annum. The 80 micron bag would cost 400 million Rand per annum to Pick n' Pay which would in turn pass on the additional costs to its consumers. Across the industry it would lead to a 3 billion Rand increase in costs which would be passed on to South Africans by increasing the costs of foodstuffs.

Pick n' Pay says that we need to cultivate a culture of recycling and reuse. We also need to look at the 3-6 micron bags that are imported and that seem to be a lot of the litter problem. Research has shown that the 17 micron bag is the best weight and that the bags are used an average of 20 times each before being thrown out. Pick n' Pay has made a commitment for recycling centers in all of its stores with the support and cooperation of suppliers to pick up the bags from their stores.

Mr September (ANC) asked when these discussion between all the players in the industry started. And is there any way the Committee can get a report from these meetings in the future to be kept up to date on the efforts in the industry.

Pick n' Pay responded by stating that the discussion have been going on for nearly 2 years, and Pick n' Pays programs on education have spent nearly 5 million Rand so far. The retailers will provide reports in the future on developments in the area.

Ms Chalmers (ANC) asked if the industry is looking at bio-degradable carrying bags. She also noted that while the world may be moving towards plastic, it is the prerogative of the Members and of the population to decide that they may not wish to follow.

Ms Verwoerd (ANC) noted that Woolworths' presentation seemed to contradict their submission from the hearings on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). She also wanted to know what are the problems associated with charging a small amount for bags and then returning some of the cost when the bags are returned. She also noted that the poorer members of the population would be more interested in thicker bags (such as the Bag 4 life) because they will last longer.

Woolworths responded that they are involved in a massive recycling scheme but question the financial resources that would be needed to implement a buy back scheme in their stores.

Pick n' Pay commented that they have sold over 250,000 Bags 4 Life so far. To respond to the question about the buy back program, Pick n' Pay commented that they are in the business of selling food, not recycling, and that it would cost too much to implement a buy back program.

Mr Davies responded to the comment on bio-degradable bags by noting that they are at the moment too expensive for general commodity applications. One of the interesting things about bio-degradable bags is that trials have shown that they may in fact increase wastage because people think they will bio-degrade more quickly than is actually the case, and will throw them out rather than reusing them. Bio-degradable polymers are currently not a solution, but may be in the future.

Lorraine Lotter from Business South Africa (BSA) stated that there was a program in the Department to look at economic incentives to reduce litter and the program had stalled. She asked the DEAT to resume their research in this area.

Dr Olver (DG - DEAT) commented that so far the DEAT has seen some commitments and some proposed alternatives. One is a 12 month grace period for industry to come up will a thorough proposal. The basic issue said Dr Olver is this - are we (the DEAT) being offered a window dressing to prevent the promulgation of the regulations for private interests or are these serious offers? Who is going to pull the industry together, set targets and monitor results? Unless this information is pulled together and placed on the table the DEAT should assume that it is just marketing.

Mr Le Roux (NNP) asked if this was a product problem or a people problem - is it the job of the private sector or of government to control waste? It seems, according to Mr Le Roux, that the government is trying to pass off responsibility for the litter problem.

Dr Olver (DG - DEAT) responded that according to the legislation passed by the Portfolio Committee, the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), which followed directly from the Constitution, the polluter pays. There is no sole owness on the industry but so far they have taken no responsibility.

StarPac Distributors

StarPac stated that the problem lies in the informal sector, an area that will also be one of the most difficult to police should the regulations go through.

Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union

According to the union, the regulations will affect the poorer, rural workers the most. It must be taken into consideration that for every worker, there are an average of ten non-earning dependents. The composition of the workforce in the industry is also 60% women. Therefore the regulations will affect those that need help the most. The Union welcomes the DG's comments that there will be more substantive negotiations in Nedlac to prevent significant job losses.

The Union noted that awareness is not enough, that concrete solutions to the waste problem are needed. Unfortunately these regulations are not the solution.

Plastics Federation of South Africa (PFSA)

One needs to look at the impact of the regulations a little more closely. The hardest hit companies will be the small producers such as the 800 converter companies. The international trend is moving towards plastic bags, and do we really want to be moving backwards? The PFSA stated that this is moving away from the forward thinking the government should be promoting.

The PFSA noted that there are some concrete alternatives being proposed. There is a huge industry for collecting materials, enabling the unemployed to join this informal sector. All litter does have inherent value - in Japan you can no longer recycle plastic because they generate energy from their waste. These regulations do not provide a solution, they only create more problems.

Arnold Van Der Riet

Mr Van Der Riet, a private individual, presented his idea to the Committee. It is based upon on artificial subsidy for collection by way of a tax imposed at the point of sale. His idea was to charge 12 cents per bag, giving 10 cents back to the individual who returns the bag and 2 cents for administrative costs. The justification for this program would be the idea that those who buy the bags should pay for their collection. Bags have a very low intrinsic value and do not provide enough incentive for recyclers to collect. This financial incentive should drive the system, providing financial opportunities for those who need it most.

Shop Rite

Shop Rite pledged their support for the Plastics Federation and the other retailers. They cannot support the regulations as they will increase the cost of food for the consumer. One benefit of the legislation is that it has brought all the stakeholders to the table, debating the issues and proposing more substantive solutions to the litter problem.

Business South Africa (BSA)

Dr Lorraine Lotter started by saying that the goals of the regulations are supported by all stakeholders, but it is the methods of attaining the aims that are the point of contention.

The issues:
Poor access in SA to waste management services.
Litter defacing landscape.
Negative impact on tourism.
Integrated approach to waste management.
Need to extend access to basic waste management services.

Impact of regulations:
Will not contribute to extending access to waste management services.
Not part of integrated approach.
Adverse economic and social effects.
Thicker bags may be more visible.

Legislative Issues:
Jurisdiction of Minister
Product vs. waste
Enabling powers of Environmental Conservation Act
Example: imported plastic bags - unless this is addressed legislation will be useless.
Need for cooperative governance

Approach to legislative process:
Clear and unambiguous law (what bags are we talking about)
Implementation strategy
Contribution to sustainable development (testing NEMA standards on every law)
Civil society support (if civil society supports legislation, then it will enforce itself)

Corporate (keen to do better)
Individual (duty to the conservation of the environment)
Dr Lotter stated that while the DG is concerned that there has been no concrete proposal from industry, it is difficult to bring a unilateral proposal from such diverse interests and areas. She proposed that the process begins here. Every member from industry has committed themselves but government is needed to spearhead and coordinate the discussions.

Integrated implementation
Sound, enforceable law
Visible improvement

Mari Lou Roux (Habitat Council)
Ms Roux commented that the result of these regulations may have been different had the DEAT consultation process been more thorough. It benefits no one when people are put out of work so more time is needed to allow for the transfer of strategies and machinery to the new regulations. This would entail a longer phasing-in period than is currently proposed. More research is also needed in the area.

The Chair, Ms Mahlangu (ANC) agreed with industry that there are problems with the current regulations that need to be analyzed more thoroughly before the regulations are promulgated. What is needed is a solid commitment from industry so that when the Chair takes the issue to the Minister, she will have a good case. The Chair then gave a minute to each Member to sum up their feelings on the hearings and to each member of industry to state their commitments to the Committee.

At the end of the comments the Chair summed up by thanking all parties for their constructive suggestions and agreed that a grace period was needed. Industry had asked for 12 months but the Committee decided that a meeting would be convened in March, 2001 (if agreed to by the Minister) to look at proposals brought forward by industry. The meeting was adjourned.

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