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Big Bag Battle Opens S. Africa's War on Litter


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — They're dubbed "roadside daisies" and South Africa's "national flower." They flap from fences, hang in bushes and float on rivers. They're thin plastic grocery bags, and they've become a national eyesore.

The Environment Ministry wants to phase them out and introduce thicker, reusable bags that officials believe would help alleviate the country's mammoth litter problem. But manufacturers of plastic are adamant that the government's proposed legislation would cripple the industry and lead to job losses.

The controversy over thin versus thick has galvanized South Africans across the social spectrum. The issue has sparked debates over how best to handle waste management and improve attitudes toward cleanliness and recycling in a society that environmentalists say could win a prize for its uninhibited ability to litter.

"We have a largely undeveloped Third World community buying products that are packaged for a First World environment," said Peter Ryan, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town's Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, who has studied the plastic bag issue.

In a nation short on both garbage-collection sites and public education about the consequences of littering, people often throw trash in the street. The thin plastic bags, given out by supermarkets and shops, are easily dispersed by wind and water, clogging drains, choking livestock and spoiling landscapes.

In a move to cut down on the number of such bags, the government introduced the legislation last year to replace 18-micron sacks with thicker 30-micron plastic bags. Within six months of that move, manufacturers would be required to increase the thickness to 80 microns. A micron is one thousandth of a millimeter.

Specifics of the regulation are being ironed out and might be finalized as soon as next month, environmental officials said. If Parliament passes the law, it would take a year to fully go into effect. Manufacturers and retailers who defy the ban on thin bags would face fines up to $10,000, jail terms not exceeding 10 years, or both.

The aim is to encourage shoppers to both reuse and recycle the higher-quality bags and lessen litter.

"It's a waste management issue," said Phindile Makwakwa, spokeswoman for the Environment Ministry. "When you have thicker bags, they are easier to recycle and are good quality when recycled. Government is out to launch an all-out war against litter."

But manufacturers, unions and shop managers oppose the legislation, saying it would shut down production here and force many retailers to import plastic bags.

"The equipment for making thin bags cannot simply be converted and changed around to make the thick bags," said Bill Naude, executive director of the Plastics Federation of South Africa. "Thick bags require a different type of process and equipment. It is unlikely that any of the companies currently making bags would be willing to reinvest."

The federation has suggested increasing the thickness of bags to 25 microns so its members can keep their current machines.

The thin plastic bags are made primarily from high-density polyethylene, a crystalline substance. Thicker bags require low-density polyethylene.

Dow Chemical is South Africa's only manufacturer of the high-density polyethylene from which thin bags are made. The multi-national company produces about 165,000 tons of plastic a year in South Africa, of which about a quarter is used for supermarket bags and other thin-gauge sacks. The company does not produce the type of polyethylene needed for thicker bags.

A report compiled last year by the National Economic Development and Labor Council, a government-funded legal advisory group that reviewed the proposed law, concluded that if thin bags were outlawed, Dow Plastics could lose up to $7 million a year in profits and the government up to $2.1 million annually in taxes.

"So for us, [the ban] will have a significant impact," said Toni Whittal, the Johannesburg-based communications manager at Dow Plastics. "If the legislation goes through on these bags, what's to say the government will not then start with plastic bottles? Where does it end?"

The advisory group also found that more than 70,000 jobs could be lost if South Africa's plastic-bag makers go into decline. Renay Koopman, 24, an employee of Nampak Polyfoil at its Cape Town plastics manufacturing plant, dreads the thought of such a downturn. "How will we get new jobs? There are no jobs in this country," she said.

Government officials say production of thicker bags and increased recycling would create jobs.

Supporters of thin bags argue that the change would hurt consumers, as manufacturers and stores pass on higher costs. The proposed measure goes against efforts to do more with less material, they say, and would outlaw a free item widely reused by consumers. They predict that stores will have to start charging consumers for the thick bags.

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