South Africa is in the midst of a significant overhaul of its product stewardship and waste diversion operations. Each of the printed paper and packaging (PPP), electrical and electronic, and lighting industries have respectively prepared 5-year Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) plans. Producers in all of these industries have been engaged in this process and, overall, a clear consensus has emerged that EPR in South Africa is both environmentally and socially necessary.

SA EPR: From Voluntary to Compliance

While South Africa’s packaging waste diversion performance statistics are already some of the best in all of Africa and reflect significant efforts at product stewardship in the country, there are concerns that the achievements to date need the force of law to advance significantly further. Consequently, these EPR plans will move product stewardship from a voluntary, pre-compliance or “soft” regulatory scheme to a robust EPR legal regime for each respective product stream. A similar plan for tires was initiated in 2012, although the original owners of the plan attracted a law suit. In January 2019 the Supreme Court cleared multibillion-rand tyre recycling project Redisa of corruption charges.

Social and Economic Equality Aims of EPR Through Industry-led Model

A second overt goal in the EPR plan is a need to address social and economic inequalities through more accessible and localized waste diversions industries. The PPP-relevant industries serve as a useful example. Currently no fewer than 7 industry-created, voluntary producer responsibility organizations (PROs) exist, each serving regional and market segments.

These PROs tend to be largely representative of converters and manufacturers of paper and packaging products and not historically-orientated towards systemic inclusion of the country’s disadvantaged populations, although many include social upliftment projects in the project spend. The PPP plan for one, entitled Packaging SA Extended Producer Responsibility Plan, dated September 2018, aims to address this disparity, including its mandate to provide at least half of all EPR project funds for PPP to majority “black owned companies”.

Industry Led / Industry Managed Model as Agent of Change

Equally interesting is that the PPP plan means to achieve equality aims. Instead of a government-led, or “shared responsibility” model, the PPP plan relies upon an “obligated industry led and managed model” with a legal obligation for membership by all PPP producers. As the only proven stakeholder capable of realizing the related waste diversion goals of the PPP plan, this model provides the means to achieve its desired ends. Government-run schemes have, by contrast, not managed to deliver on any of their constituted aims – refer to the Plastic Bag Levy.

SA’s Coming Circular Economy Approach

As ambitious as the Industry Led / Industry Management Model will itself be for SA, including its PPP, the plan goes one step further in seeking to add yet-to-be developed circular economy obligations upon industry, as a further deliverable for South Africa’s Vision 2030 National Development Plan. The longer-term vision is to stimulate a secondary resources economy which would bolster additional employment and transformation opportunities through the development of supplementary material markets.

A Question that Forms the Basis of the EPR Plan

“How can an EPR Plan respond to the Needs of South Africa and stimulate an economy that can foster meaningful work opportunities, encourage partnerships, and provide a platform for transformation?”

The PPP plan specifically cites Design-for-Environment (DfE), a founding pillar of the European Union’s circular economy program, as included within the PPP plan framework. The 5 year plan includes the recommendation that a Technical Working Group is established that investigates practical ways to transition along the value chain to a more circular economy using the EPR plan as the launchpad for change.

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This EPR plan, in marrying overt and concrete social and economic equality goals with a circular economy mandate (including DfE) is arguably the first of its kind worldwide and will, no doubt, require the patience and diligence of all stakeholders to make significant progress. Most importantly, industry must both import international waste diversion and circular economy standards and best practices, while adjusting their implementation to also make tangible gains in equality. Waste management has perhaps never been so dynamic.