Plastics SA, the umbrella body representing the local plastics industry, has issued a response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA)  delivered on February 8, 2024.

Executive Director, Anton Hanekom said although the President’s address highlighted the challenges facing the nation as a whole, the impact of many of these obstacles are profoundly felt by the plastics industry.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Ramaphosa acknowledged that the country is still dealing with the fallout from state capture, load shedding, deteriorating infrastructure, and a lack of investment. “For a decade, individuals at the highest levels of the state conspired with private individuals to take over and repurpose state owned companies, law enforcement agencies and other public institutions. Billions of rands that were meant to meet the needs of ordinary South Africans were stolen. Confidence in our country was badly eroded. Public institutions were severely weakened,” the President said.

Protecting the manufacturing sector and creating jobs

The South African government stated that it has taken certain steps to address the youth unemployment challenge in the country. Despite this, our unemployment rate is the highest it has ever been.

“The plastics industry was identified as a priority sector for the South African economy as it provides employment to 60,000 people. However, the recent economic downturn, energy crisis and labour challenges are forcing many plastics manufacturers and recyclers to downscale their operations and risk the jobs of many workers. Immediate and drastic measures are needed to protect and restore the entire manufacturing sector, but especially to revitalise the competitiveness of the plastics sector,” Hanekom said. He also urged the Government to extend the RAF fuel rebate offered to food manufacturers on diesel for generators to the to include plastic packaging manufacturers.

“Because recognise the need for a skilled and trained workforce that can add value in each sector, we continue to provide cutting edge, hands-on training in the latest manufacturing and leadership techniques that not only address our unemployment crisis, but also help to stimulate economic growth and ensure our competitiveness on a global stage,” he added.

Improving infrastructure

Plastics play a crucial role in modern infrastructure, offering durability, versatility and cost-effectiveness in various construction applications. Explains Hanekom: ”In infrastructure projects, plastics are utilised in numerous forms, including pipes, cables, insulation materials, and roofing membranes. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes are commonly used for water distribution and sewage systems due to their corrosion resistance and longevity. Additionally, plastics such as polystyrene and polyurethane are employed in insulation, enhancing energy efficiency in buildings. Moreover, the lightweight nature of plastics facilitates easier transportation and installation, reducing labour costs and environmental impact”.

The Department of Water and Sanitation aims to enhance water resource management by initiating infrastructure projects to secure water supply and diversifying water sources to reduce dependence on surface water. In addition, Government has committed to increase construction of infrastructure through new and innovative funding mechanisms. The industry eagerly awaits the commencement of these infrastructure projects to provide products that will contribute to cost effectiveness, durability and a low carbon footprint.

“Plastics plays a crucial role in the country’s infrastructure and food security. However, we need government support and political will to revitalise the manufacturing sector, support local businesses, and combat the influx of cheap imports coming into our country and eroding our markets,” Hanekom urged.

Protecting the environment

Finding solutions to South Africa’s pollution problem and protecting the environment continue to be a key focus area for both the Government and the plastics industry around the world. Hanekom reiterated that plastics have an important role to play in actually combatting climate change.

“Numerous studies and life cycle analyses have proven time and again that when plastics are collected and recycled as part of a circular economy, they have a smaller environmental footprint compared to other packaging materials. They can be re-used many times over. Plastics that have a one-time purpose can be recycled into useful applications with a long-term use, for example water bottles are recycled into duvets, pillows of fleece jackets, or bottles for milk, juice and shampoo, shopping bags, household containers and crates and closures can be recycled into toys, garden furniture or decking,” he explained.

For this reason, Plastics SA is relentless in its efforts to promote and educate end-users about recycling, supporting the industry with the development of end-markets and working with local and national government to improve waste management and collection systems throughout the country.

Other growth sectors

Numerous other areas of focus and investment were singled out by the President where plastics have an important role to play. Says Hanekom: “Whether it is stabilising the country’s energy supply, fixing logistical problems or boosting electric vehicle manufacturing, plastics have a role to play in every area”.

In conclusion, while concerns about plastic pollution are valid, it is important to recognise the crucial role that plastics play in the future of South Africa. With proper waste management and recycling initiatives, these issues can be effectively mitigated, allowing for the continued utilisation of plastics in various sectors. The industry’s willingness to cooperate and support national objectives underscores the potential for positive change. However, it is essential for political will and decisive action to align with these efforts to steer the country and its economy towards growth and prosperity. By addressing plastic pollution, while harnessing the benefits of plastics responsibly, South Africa can forge a sustainable path forward for generations to come.