It has been said that even if existing pledges and national targets for reducing emissions are achieved, the reduction won't be sufficient enough to limit the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees. Anything above this, scientists believe, will cause irreversible devastation.

Contributing to these emissions are unsustainable waste management policies across the globe. According to the OECD, plastic production has doubled in the last 20 years, with a total of 460 million tonnes produced in 2019 alone. Of this, less than 10% is recycled, and it is estimated that plastic production will account for up to 20% of the global carbon budget by 2040.

So how can transitioning to a circular economy help tackle the climate crisis?

The circular economy has a key role to play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by minimising those which stem from material extraction and used in various sectors, not only those limited to plastic production. By targeting unsustainable practices in key industry sectors such as construction and agriculture, circular economy strategies can potentially cut 40% of emissions by 2050. The demand for raw materials and new products is reduced, and this in turn helps reduce the global emissions that come from the extraction and processing of materials.

Although it is critical to focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy, achieving net-zero requires a fundamental shift in how we produce and use products, materials, and food. For example:

  1. Minimising waste and pollution reduces greenhouse gas emissions across sectors;
  2. Recycling products and materials retains their embodied energy; and
  3. Rehabilitated environments (which are freed up by implementing the circular economy) allow for additional carbon to be sequestered.

The state of play in South Africa

There are a number of policies, programmes and legislation in place in South Africa which promote development of a circular economy. This is supported by the recognition of the waste management hierarchy under the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, which is given effect through the National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS).

The regulatory developments in the South African waste management framework reflect a shift in focus from landfill management to recycling, reuse and recovery. This is in line with global trends in waste management which indicate a shift from waste management solutions that entail "end of pipe" methodologies (primarily landfilling) to a circular economy approach, recognising that many waste streams are resources rather than waste.

In order to achieve a circular economy, one of the key principles which must be implemented is "extended producer responsibility". Therefore, a key part of South Africa's waste management framework is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations, which provide for the financial and/or physical responsibility of producers across various supply chains to ensure the sustainable treatment and disposal of post-consumer products. The goal is to create accountability for the environmental impacts of these products, and thereby promote waste minimisation.

Are South African policies bringing success?

The EPR Regulations have only been in place for little more than two years, making it too early to begin drawing definitive conclusions, but there are certainly early signs for optimism. In that time, the regulations have:

  • Resulted in removal of 368,600 tonnes of plastic waste.
  • Created support for between 60,000 and 90,000 informal waste reclaimers.

The EPR Regulations (through EPR schemes) provide for private sector collaboration, which is crucial in order to reach the waste minimisation targets under the NWMS.

However, there are challenges to implementation of waste minimisation policies, as recently noted by the South African Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy in relation to the development of a UN treaty on ending plastic pollution. Minister Creecy stated that, while South Africa recognises "the threat plastic pollution poses to human health, ecosystem functioning and the marine environment", there are a number of just transition considerations which need to be taken into account when implementing plastic reduction legislation. Foremost of these issues is the plastic industry itself, which sustains an estimated 60,000 jobs. The Minister also cited South Africa's role as a developing country and the access to adequate and reliable financial resources as other potential hurdles.

The importance of informal waste reclaimers

Underappreciated contributors to the cause of waste minimisation and the implementation of a circular economy are informal waste reclaimers. Reclaimers are individuals who collect re-usable and recyclable materials from residential and commercial waste bins, landfill sites and open spaces in order to revalue them and generate an income. They act as an important bridge between the municipal service chain and the formal private sector value chain in developing countries, helping to move 'waste' from the roadside and landfills into the recycling economy. Reclaimers make a significant contribution to formal waste management and recycling systems by reducing any leakage from products, sustaining local recycling economies and extending the life span of landfill sites.

The achievements of these marginalised members of society cannot be understated.

  • A 2021 study indicated that informal waste pickers diverted around 51% of all paper and packaging waste collected in South Africa in 2017, while a Policy Briefing Note from February 2016 indicates that "informal pickers are estimated to have saved municipalities between ZAR309.2 – ZAR748.8 million in landfill airspace in 2014, at little to no cost, by diverting recyclables away from landfill."
  • From a sustainability perspective, it has been argued that waste pickers play a fundamental role in assisting the achievement of a number of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty (SDG 1), decent work (SDG 8), reducing inequality (SDG 10), Sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), sustainable production and consumption (SDG 12), and climate action (SDG 13).

Despite this, their contributions to sustainability have historically not received the acknowledgement they deserve. Informal reclaimers have, until the promulgation of the EPR regulations, typically not been paid for the collection service they provide. Formalising their role is a first step towards providing waste pickers with much needed support, and this would promote the objectives of fairness, justice and inclusivity - something that was emphasised during COP26 in Glasgow two years ago and has been re-emphasised in South Africa's own Just Energy Implementation Plan.

Although there has been significant progress made in recognising the role of waste reclaimers, other jurisdictions have shown that effective integration can be expedited by implementing additional measures at a municipal level, such as:

  1. Municipalities contracting directly with waste pickers to target selected waste streams;
  2. Allowing reclaimers access to facilities such as warehouses and drop off stations; and
  3. Workshops for creating and maintaining waste picker waste trolleys.

To successfully build an inclusive circular economy, it is clear that reclaimers need to be recognised as key stakeholders that contribute significantly, not only to the collection and recycling of post-consumer material but also to alleviating socio-economic challenges in African cities. This includes:

  • Including reclaimers in key policy and industry discussions about circularity towards reuse and circular initiatives.
  • Improving working conditions of reclaimers.
  • Promote reclaimer integration (into regulatory frameworks to relieve municipal waste systems).
  • Ensuring fair compensation for materials that reclaimers sell and the services they provide.

What next?

In order to achieve a circular economy, South Africa must continue to implement the promising policy initiatives which have been developed in recent years and draw on international best practice in working towards a sustainable future, while focusing on putting the nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the forefront of the battle against climate change.

For South Africa, the transition to a circular economy needs to promote a sustainable and resilient socio-economic transformation, while also promoting opportunities for the most vulnerable people in our communities. For our cities to attain a sustainable and just inclusive circular economy, specific considerations should be given to adopting practices that are rooted in or have benefited local context.