Solving the plastic pollution problem

In the third article of three on plastic – its wonders, its problems and solutions – provocative SA journalist, Ivo Vegter, believes recycling is a scam and the solutions are mostly simple. Very interesting and sensible reading….time to get real, folks!

Instead of campaigns that get up everyone’s noses but only tinker around the edges, or investing in costly but ultimately pointless solutions, there are a few constructive, impactful changes we can make to dramatically reduce plastic pollution.

We reached a few conclusions in my previous two columns on plastic.

One is that plastic is an awesome material with a myriad uses that often replaces alternatives with a larger environmental footprint, and often cannot be replaced at all. If we want to address plastic pollution, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by passing short-sighted laws restricting the production or sale of plastic products.

Another is that environmental anti-plastic campaigns follow the stock-standard playbook: exaggerate the problem, misattribute blame to consumers, and propose anti-capitalist solutions that won’t achieve much except keep the donations flowing to green NGOs.

Recycling scam

Much of the plastic recycling industry is a scam. Once touted by environmentalists as the solution to plastic pollution, it never made economic or environmental sense, even for the few types of plastic that can be recycled (most can’t).

Inasmuch as recycling was government-subsidised, it made a few ‘green tech’ investors wealthy, but crony-enrichment is really all recycling has ever achieved.

The costs, both environmental and financial, of cleaning, de-labelling, separating, and reprocessing plastics was always going to be an insurmountable obstacle. The end-product was always going to be low-quality, good only for rough manufactured materials such as moulded outdoor furniture or floor tiles. And the cost of recycled plastic was always going to exceed the cost of virgin materials.

This is why, in the US, less than 10% of plastic is recycled. In 2018, the US recycled three million tons of plastic. It incinerated 5.6 million tons and buried 27 million tons in landfill.

The European Union exports about half its plastic waste, because of a lack of capacity, technology or financial resources to treat the waste locally. Presumably, they think that the third-world dumping grounds that buy the stuff have better technology, better capacity, and better financial resources to treat Europe’s waste.

(Remember the 10 rivers of plastic waste, that are all in Asia or Africa? Much of that is Europe’s waste, being dumped into the oceans.)

For the plastic that remains in Europe, recycling rates are significantly better than in the US, with a third of plastic waste being recycled, and only a quarter being landfilled, with the remainder being incinerated in what they euphemistically call ‘energy recovery’.

Even here, though, the quality and price of the recycled product compared with their unrecycled counterpart bedevils the recycling industry, and in 2018, recycled plastic accounted for only 6% of the European Union’s plastic demand.

If anyone tries to sell you a ‘circular economy’, remind them that even in the most advanced economies in the world, it is not a practical economic alternative, but ideological pie in the sky.

Blame Big Oil

Recycling is never going to be the solution to plastic pollution. Now, the bitter truth being unavoidable, the same media and activists that once demanded plastic recycling are blaming ‘Big Oil’ for misleading them. It’s pretty funny, when you think about it.

As for the other legs of the mantra, ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’, we’ve seen that the former is not particularly desirable because of plastic’s unique qualities, while the latter is fraught with difficulties, including the financial, environmental and labour costs of cleaning reusable items, and the fact that reusable alternatives to single-use plastics are often worse for the environment.

If any of the activists’ ideas about reducing plastic pollution made ecological or economic sense, you would be paid to contribute. We don’t have a scrap metal pollution problem, because scrap metal can be profitably recycled. Most plastic cannot.

However, we’ve also seen that consumers represent only a very small part of the plastic pollution problem. Globally, only two or three percent of plastic waste ends up in the oceans, and almost always, this pollution comes from poor countries.

The greatest contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean is the fishing industry.

Greenpeace’s solution to this problem is pretty puzzling. It believes that a global treaty to create marine sanctuaries over 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 would make a difference. I hate to break it to Greenpeace, but you can’t fence off the ocean, and all the fishing happening elsewhere will continue to dump fishing gear into the ocean, which the currents will take where they may.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has a more thought-through plan that focuses specifically on fishing gear. Some of its proposals, like making fishing gear traceable to owners, and encouraging retrieval of lost gear, have promise.

As with all things on the ocean, where property rights are hard or impossible to delineate and enforce, the ‘ghost gear’ problem is complex. It will be tempting to impose mandates or prohibitions on fishers, and those are indeed the environmental lobby’s go-to solutions. To be effective without imposing undue costs on the fishing industry will be the real challenge.

This is where environmentalists could work with economists, scientists and industry experts to tackle what is the single biggest plastic pollution problem on the planet. Even moderate success would have an outsize impact.

In addition to programmes aimed specifically at curbing fishing waste, we could support ocean cleanup projects, such as this project, and this project, both imaginatively called The Ocean Cleanup Project. There are others, some of which are also called ‘Ocean Cleanup’.

Plastic on land

On land, the plastic problem is different. Unlike fishing gear, the plastic that enters the ocean via rivers is supposed to stay on land. Merely remaining on land, however, is not good enough. Although the threat plastic poses to wildlife and ecosystems on land is likely wildly exaggerated, nobody likes a littered landscape.

The solution here is simple, however, and it isn’t anything new or revolutionary.

The first is to promote and develop well-designed landfills, especially in the countries that act as bin-pickers for the rich world, reprocessing solid waste that they buy by the boat-load.

Landfills aren’t just some out of the way plot of land where rubbish can be dumped. Modern landfills, like wastewater treatment plants, are designed facilities, with a number of basic requirements.

They should be sited in low-rainfall areas, over a natural mineral liner between the waste and any groundwater. They should be furnished with a synthetic liner to prevent leachate from penetrating the natural substrate. That leachate should be monitored, managed and, where possible, reprocessed. Landfill gas might be captured for commercial use. Vegetation could be introduced not only for aesthetic purposes, but also to help degrade the waste and chemicals in the landfill.

Good landfill design is a big subject. Plastic, when disposed of in a well-constructed, well-managed landfill, is no bother to anyone. It is no longer an environmental threat. It won’t end up in the ocean, or in the food chain.

Banish from your mind any images burnt into your consciousness by movies like Wall-E. It is widely believed that we are ‘drowning in our own waste’. We aren’t, though.

Plenty space for landfills

If we assume current growth rates in solid waste generation, the world will generate 337 billion metric tons of waste, including but not limited to plastic, between now and the year 2100. The true number, thanks to both technology and economics, will likely be less.

In South Africa, we generated about 50.6 million tons of waste in 2021. Of that, more than 80% went to specially engineered landfills, but we have some work to do on the remainder. The country also treated, in various ways, about a million tons of waste, and recycled about 13.8 million tons of waste, more than half of which was metals.

If we suppose that the amount of waste South Africa disposes of in landfills grows at the same rate as the global estimate above, the country will produce 7.8 billion tons of landfill waste between now and 2100. Again, it will probably be less.

Waste has a density of between 0.75t/m3 and 1.20t/m3. depending on its composition and compacting efficiency. That means the world will produce, at most, 404.4km3 of solid waste between now and 2100, while South Africa will produce, at most, 9.4km3 of solid waste.

If you make your landfills, say, 50m deep, the world could square away all its waste for the rest of this century in a single square landfill measuring 90km to a side. That sounds big, but it’s about half the size of Eswatini.

That still sounds big, but let’s divide that by a (very rough) estimate of 5 300 existing landfills in the world (based on the number in the US, scaled to the world by GDP). That gives us an average of 1.53km2, per landfill, or 1.24km to a side.

And if we double the landfill depth to 100m on average, which is entirely possible, we could halve either the size or the number of all these landfills.

The same calculation for South Africa shows we could store all our waste for the rest of the century in a single landfill of 188km2, or 13.7km to a side. That sounds big, but here’s what it looks like on a map:

Sucks if that’s your Karoo farm, but if not, you’ll never notice it’s there.

South Africa currently has 270 landfill sites. If they’re all assumed to be full, we’d have to expand each site by 0.7km2, or an area 835m to a side. Again, if we stack the waste 100m deep instead of 50m, we can halve that area.

Neither South Africa, nor the world, is ‘running out of landfill space’. Of course, current sites fill up, but establishing new sites for the entire rest of the century’s waste does not present major difficulties, even without relying upon expropriation without compensation to acquire the land.


Of course, the plastic has to reach the landfill in the first place. So combine a program to develop decent landfills by investing in anti-littering and litter cleanup campaigns. The plastic bag levy in South Africa was intended to curb demand and promote a market for recyclable materials. It has largely failed to do the former, and has entirely failed to do the latter.

Of course, the plastic has to reach the landfill in the first place. So combine a program to develop decent landfills by investing in anti-littering and litter cleanup campaigns. The plastic bag levy in South Africa was intended to curb demand and promote a market for recyclable materials. It has largely failed to do the former, and has entirely failed to do the latter.

Instead of going into the general Treasury pot to pay for ministerial home upgrades, luxury cars and Saxonwold shebeens, this levy, or a similar tax on, say, disposable plastics, could be used to pay litter cleanup crews and promote anti-littering messaging in the media.

Remember the Zap it in a Zibi Can campaign around 1980? Here’s the original Afrikaans version, and here’s the full two-minute English-language 7-inch single. The tune is still surprisingly catchy, and more than 40 years later, the campaign, and the blue, Zibi-branded bins that accompanied it, remains etched in the memories of those old enough to have seen it.

A revival of such a campaign, combined with a job-creation programme that actually did something useful, like clean up our streets, parks, highways and beaches, would make a plastics tax a far less bitter pill to swallow.

Between addressing fishing gear plastic in the ocean, ocean cleanups, developing well-designed landfill sites, and anti-litter campaigns – especially in developing countries – whatever threat plastic pollution poses to the environment could be a thing of the past in a decade or two.

The upside of these four interventions is that none of us will have to suck on soggy paper straws, spend our days rinsing recyclables and washing reusable containers, buy food wrapped unhygienically in newspaper like we did before we invented air-tight single-use plastic containers, or buy expensive canvas shopping bags that we always forget at home and need to be used hundreds or even thousands of times to outperform plastic shopping bags on environmental grounds.

Don’t be a litterbug, and dispose of plastic properly, and plastic pollution ceases to be a problem.


Other articles in this outstanding series: