Plastic Waste in South Africa: Economic Opportunity or Environmental Catastrophe ?


South Africa recently announced that it intends to import more plastic waste. Some countries choose to import plastic waste because they are paid to do so. Also, the waste can be recycled and put to good use. However, when this doesn’t happen plastic waste can cause significant environmental damage. It pollutes air and water sources and makes cities unpleasant to live in.

Why is South Africa importing more plastic waste?

South Africa is opening up applications for importing plastic waste to meet the plastic industry’s needs. Some sorts of plastic waste can be used by businesses as a cheap manufacturing resource. Businesses have also said some plastics are not common enough in South Africa. Importing these plastics could make manufacturing cheaper and more profitable. This can benefit the wider society as goods are cheaper and businesses can pay more tax to the government.

Why is this a controversial decision?

South Africa currently only recycles 14% of its plastic waste. There are questions as to whether most of the new imported plastic will be recycled. Plastic takes a very long time to break down. So, when it is not recycled it must be stored somewhere. Lots of plastic ends up in large landfill sites. Lots of countries in Africa such as Kenya have experienced difficulties with such sites. 

Plastics can also end up in the oceans. This is often a result of it being blown from landfill sites. It is estimated that by 2040 there will be 600 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans. Some people think that South Africa won’t be able to deal with even more waste than it already has. In practice, it seems unlikely they will recycle it all. In all likelihood, more plastic will end up in the natural environment. 

The other criticism of South Africa is that it encourages other countries to produce more plastic waste. If countries know that they can export waste to South Africa, there is no incentive to reduce plastic waste. Plastic waste needs to be reduced globally. Countries importing plastic waste can prevent this from happening. 

However, some countries are in a good position to import waste. Many countries in Europe recycle well over half their waste.  In this case, it makes economic sense to import more to be recycled. In these instances, the environmental impact will be minimal. However, South Africa and the wider Africa region are not in the same position. This is mostly because they lack the infrastructure to deal effectively with waste.


For some countries, importing plastic waste can be an important economic opportunity. If they can use the waste without causing environmental damage, there are economic benefits. However, for some countries, this is not the case. South Africa already struggles with waste issues. Importing more plastic waste will provide some cheap resources for businesses. But, it will also cause significant pollution. Some of this pollution will affect water sources and the ocean. It will also affect cities with large landfill sites. So, plastic waste in South Africa is more of an environmental catastrophe than an economic opportunity.

Jed Michael


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