It is time to find truth and balance in the myriad calls for plastics to be replaced with alternatives or degradable versions. If we don’t, we risk setting policies, formulating regulations, enacting legislation and investing in technologies that will do more harm than good.
This is the view of South African National Bottled Water Association Executive Director, Charlotte Metcalf, in response to the wave of anti-plastic sentiment rippling around the globe. Most of South Africa’s bottled waters are bottled in PET bottles.
Metcalf doesn’t dispute the fact that plastic in all its forms is one of the major pollutants of our water bodies and landmasses. Nor does she argue against the fact that ways must be found to curtail that pollution.
But, she does maintain that outright bans, or the adoption of unproven and untested alternatives, are grossly overrated as solutions to plastic pollution. Worse, she said, is that these are often knee-jerk reactions to the comments made by those who should know better, who should take responsibility for educating and informing the world’s citizens – the media, opinionmakers, thought leaders.
As an example, she pointed to a campaign launched recently by the South African arm of the World Wildlife Fund. The campaign’s cornerstone was that only 16% of plastics in South Africa are recycled. But, for 2017, Plastics|SA reported that 43.7% of all plastic in South Africa is recycled, while PETCO’s post-consumer recycling rate for PET was 65%.
The campaign also ranked water bottles in 4th position on its Top 10 list of South Africa’s plastics offenders. However, according to BMi Research, the non-alcoholic beverage market excluding dairy amounted to 5 754.1-million litres. Of this, the bottled water segment accounted for just 543.7-million litres. Metcalf queries how a segment that comprises just 9.45% of the non-alcoholic market can make the Top 10 Plastic Offenders list while those products falling into the remaining 90.55% – fizzy drinks, iced teas and energy drinks – don’t.
Growing a viable business while faced with environmental sustainability issues is a major concern for South Africa’s bottled water companies. Metcalf refers to it as ‘the new normal’. However, SANBWA and its members are prepared to adapt, and are doing so.
This is demonstrated in the SANBWA Bottled Water Standard which addresses legal, hygiene, food safety and quality, and environmental requirements. With respect to the latter, SANBWA’s environmental vision is to improve members’ environmental stewardship. This addresses four critical areas:
1. Water. Ensuring effective water management from source to shelf, including requirements for source protection, efficient water usage and responsible effluent practices.
2. Solid waste: Reducing, re-using, recycling all solids involved in the production and distribution of their products.
3. Energy: Promoting the efficient use of energy and fuels.
4. Post-distribution recycling: Supporting municipal and consumer initiatives for recycling packaging and bottles.
“Bottled water companies are reducing their environmental footprint by using lighter weight plastics. Bottles currently weigh 27% less than they did 12 years ago. The bottles, made from PET, are 100% recyclable. Alternative packaging solutions, such as recycled content, are also being developed and used. The bottled water industry financially supports comprehensive recycling programs and partners with the recycling industry such as PETCO. SANBWA also requires members to use recycling friendly materials in their packaging material,” said Metcalf.
She also stressed that the activities of SANBWA’s members do not exacerbate drought conditions. The reasons for this are:
• The water sources of SANBWA members nationwide (90% of which are bottled from underground sources, that is, groundwater as opposed to surface water) must be audited to ensure long-term sustainability prior to membership being granted. All SANBWA members in the Western Cape bottle from groundwater sources.
• Groundwater is strongly buffered against drought influence. Recharge, or aquifer renewal, is replenished at between 5% and 20% a year depending on the underlying geology and topography.
• No water from any of these groundwater sources would naturally enter the municipal system via rivers and dams. Bottled water originates from sources licenced to private entities by the Department of Water & Sanitation specifically for the use of the water for commercial purposes (bottling water). The volumes extracted are monitored against the licensed limit.