Douw Steyn has been involved in clean-ups around the country for 25 years; here we see him at a clean-up on the KZN coast with Jonathan Welch of AfriEco

25 years later, plastics litter is ‘still a big problem that requires urgent attention’

Douw Steyn, sustainability manager at Plastics SA, recently completed his 25th year in the position, which milestone he celebrated quietly. We asked him what changes he’s observed with regards plastics in the environment over this period.

How did you get involved at Plastics SA in the first place? Did you know anything about plastics at that stage?

DS          Well, I studied Physical Education, ended up later working for the Population Development Programme in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, where I was responsible for population education and business sector projects. I had a chance meeting with the then director of the Plastics Federation of SA (now Plastics SA) and he had a position for an environmental officer – a new position that was established to develop and drive what was then the Enviromark, the plastics industry’s environmental initiative … and I got the job! I did not know much about plastics but I learned from the industry and by developing educational resource materials – of course I knew Tupperware, pipes and bags!

It appears that the rate of plastic litter entering water systems and leading to the ocean has increased rapidly over this period. Would you say the problem was underestimated at first?

DS          When I was appointed, we did not know much about the volumes of plastics entering our environment, from roadsides to rivers to beaches to the ocean. The more we got involved with projects such as Ocean Conservancy with the International Coastal Clean-up, KZN Wildlife, other ‘keep clean’ organisations, and people such as Prof Peter Ryan of UCT doing research on plastics litter along our coastline, we realised that we had huge problem. I now know more waste is entering our ocean due to human behaviour to litter, lack of waste management infrastructure and the demand for products due to population growth.

With regards beach and river clean-ups, have you noticed any trends over the period?

DS          It depends which areas we look at. Plastic bags used to be a big problem, but now that we have a plastics bag regulation in place and people pay for the bags, we see less bags in the clean ups. However, we now see more of other products such as bottles, bottles tops, and other packaging products. As many people live next to our rivers in the catchment areas, especially in metropolitan areas, we find more litter ends up on our beaches. Rivers are used as dumping grounds and when it floods all the material gets washed downstream. This is a huge problem that needs urgent attention.

Do clean-ups help?

DS          For many years I thought so, but if we don’t educate our society not to litter, to recycle their products and to ensure people have access to waste management, we will not win the war against litter – sadly so.

Have personnel in the industry been well represented at clean-ups? Or has it been Plastics SA and other environmentally aware people who’ve coordinated the projects?

DS          Plastics SA encourages all to support clean-ups in the area where they live or work – that is people from industry, business, brand owners, retailers, NGO, civil society, schools and the list continues. Since the launch of the Enviromark in 1997 and the support of the polymer groups such as Petco (PET Recycling Company), Polyco (Polyolefin Recycling Company), SA Vinyls Association and Polystyrene Association (now PROs), I’ve had the support in terms of clean-up finances and participation. The fact is we should not be doing clean-ups – the country should be clean!

In terms of reducing plastics litter and improving the industry’s image, what would you say are the biggest problems in South Africa?

DS          We need to address waste management in the country, encourage separation at source (e.g., two bag/bin system – one for wet waste and one for dry waste) for all recyclables. Recyclables should be sorted and sold to recycling companies. Plastics waste has value and is a resource that should not be going to landfills. And of course, change human behaviour about littering.

Given your experience over the past 25 years, what would you say could be done to reduce the rate of plastics litter, and hence help the industry improve its public image?

DS          Many projects and activities have been conducted over the years by Plastics SA and other organisations to address littering and many are still active, including schools’ recycling projects, waste education campaigns, clean-up campaigns such as the Clean-up & Recycle SA Campaign (initiated by Plastics SA in 1997) and more.

One of the collaborations involving Plastics SA and partners is a focus on river catchment projects – especially in the Durban, Queberha (Port Elizabeth), Cape Town and Gauteng areas. The projects we support and promote in these catchment areas include waste management and recycling, technology innovation for plastics waste, education and training, litter booms and clean-up activities.

The bottom line is, we all need to work together to ensure a clean environment!

  • This year’s Clean-up & Recycling campaign is from 12-17 September and includes the River Clean-up Day on Wednesday14 September, Recycling Day on Friday 16 September, International Coastal Clean-up Day and World Clean-up Day on Saturday 17 September.