Dealing with Plastic Waste as a Trade Policy Issue
Plastic is an inexpensive, versatile material that delivers many of the societal benefits of modern life relating to health, energy-saving, safety and hygiene. In South Africa, the plastics industry is well developed, contributing 18.5% to Manufacturing GDP with applications across agriculture, construction, and packaging. However, as South Africa’s plastic consumption surges, its waste management system is struggling to accommodate its growing plastic waste generation. South Africa has been ranked in the top 20 countries globally in terms of plastic waste that is not managed effectively and ends up leaked into the environment. This leakage costs the country’s key sectors and the jobs that rely on them, including tourism and fisheries.
The government has responded with several domestic environmental regulations. Design specifications and restrictions for plastic bags have been in place since 2003, accompanied by a plastic bag levy; the City of Johannesburg rolled out a mandatory separation-at-source recycling programme for certain areas. In 2021 the regulations establishing mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes (EPR) came into effect, giving plastic producers responsibility for the end-of-life management of plastic products.
Despite the promising development of domestic regulations, the cross-border component of plastic pollution has not been explored in South Africa’s policy approach. A growing body of research based on the circular economy framework is unpacking the links between upstream patterns of production, consumption, and trade and downstream pollution. The circular economy model hinges on three principles: eliminating waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems.
Trade flows and trade policies can undermine or accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastics. The negative implications of trade on plastic pollution are particularly relevant for countries with inadequate waste management systems. Trade in plastic products and packaging adds to the waste management burden faced by importing countries; trade flows in plastic waste to countries with inadequate waste management capacity can worsen plastic leakage into the environment. Key to avoiding this and regulating South Africa’s plastic waste trade is the effective implementation of the Basel Convention provisions that deal with the transboundary movement of plastic waste. Since being amended in January 2021, the Basel Convention has placed significant restrictions on international trade in plastic waste to overcome improper disposal and minimise leakage into the environment. The ‘plastic amendments’ require that most plastic waste and scrap shipments, except for those that are pre-sorted, clean, uncontaminated, and destined for recycling in an environmentally sound manner, are subject to a Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure. The Basel convention PIC procedure calls for, among other things, the importing country to provide written consent, agreeing to accept the waste export before it departs the country of origin.
It is unclear to what extent South Africa has implemented the plastic amendments, although the DFFE, which oversees the PIC procedure with the International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC), has stated that systems have been put in place to handle applications for the importation of plastic waste. There is little information on how these systems can be accessed. Beyond managing PIC procedures, significant at-the-border enforcement challenges can be expected. The Basel Convention’s plastics amendments categorise plastics into hazardous, easy to recycle, or hard to recycle, categories. The category that the plastic waste falls into determines with which procedure the importer or exporter must comply. The Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS), which generally categorises plastics by their physical content and not their end-use provides the basis for the design of customs procedures. Currently, HS codes differentiate some types of plastic waste by polymer type but do not differentiate between kinds of plastic waste (hazardous, contaminated, mixed, recyclable). While the Basel Convention Secretariat has submitted a proposal to the World Customs Organization (WCO) to amend the HS to allow the identification of the necessary kinds of wastes, the current cycle of HS amendments will only be concluded in 2027. In the meantime, South Africa should consider adding a new subheading to augment its 8- or 10-digit HS schedules for HS39.15 (plastic waste).
Trade policies and management of trade flows can be used to address the plastic pollution problem. Reducing cross-border frictions and focusing on trade facilitation measures for end-of-life materials, scrap, and second-hand goods can maximise how efficiently these resources are used, ensuring that they flow to where they can be dealt with most economically. Additionally, safe, legal, transparent trade in plastic waste can enable economies of scale for recycling. Facilitating trade in inputs and services, as well as technology transfer needed for activities such as recycling, repairing, and refurbishing can enhance investment and innovation in circular economy sectors. South Africa can activate these changes through border measures, such as those that ease the flow of circular economy goods and services, and by tackling behind-border issues. Trade agreements are one avenue for implementation and offer South Africa the opportunity to position itself as a regional leader in circular plastics.
 Sadan, Z. and De Kock, L. (2020) Plastics: Facts and Futures: Moving beyond pollution management towards a circular plastics economy in South Africa. WWF South Africa. www.wwf.org.za/report/plasticsfactsandfutures
 Read more: What is a circular economy? Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview
 World Economic Forum. (2020a). Trade barriers are slowing plastic-pollution action. Here’s how to fix this. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/trade-barriers-are-slowing-action-on-plastic-pollution-here-s-how-to-fix-that/
 UNEP. (n.d.). Plastic Waste Amendments FAQs. Retrieved May 26, 2022, from http://www.basel.int/Implementation/Plasticwaste/PlasticWasteAmendments/FAQs/tabid/8427/Default.aspx
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