Part One: South African Policy and the Circular Economy – how to catch a cloud and pin it down

20 Jul 2020
20 Jul 2020


As South Africa moves towards the tide of sustainable development goals regarding waste management, the nation finds itself in a pool of broad ideological concepts. These ideological concepts such as ‘sustainability’ and the ‘circular economy’ are often used as catch-all terms, intended to solve all socio-economic and environmental ills of society. These concepts are aspirational and would need to be carefully placed in the hands of responsible stakeholders who will be held accountable for the environmental costs of their actions.

The circular economy (CE) has gained a lot of traction in the past decade and is generally seen as a process of closing the loop of material flow with the aim of avoiding the landfill. CE looks to innovate the way in which products are used. The aim is to promote innovative design, sustainable products and to ensure effective end-of-life product management. The CE is enabled by socio-economic and environmentally friendly practices such as novel business models; policy incentives and consumer consciousness.

The first introduction of the CE in South African policy was in  the Science, Technology and Innovation White Paper of 2019 (STI White Paper). The STI White Paper defines the CE in line with the definition given by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, generally considered the most widely accepted definition. The CE is defined as moving away from the ‘take-make-waste’ linear economy towards a system redefined to use resources regeneratively, considering restorative principles. The DST recognises its role as an enabler for the CE as the CE is likely to dominate future growth discourse.

By adopting the CE approach, the DST recognises the need to consider the environmental impact of any technological advancements and STI-based products. The process of greening the economy has the benefit of contributing approximately 400 000 job opportunities through green innovations. There is also the demand for green products to consider.

The trend of South Africa’s global trading partners such as China and the European Union incorporating the CE into their laws is also a consideration. To maintain similar goals and align with global strategies, South Africa would need to consider CE in its approach to international relations. Although the definition provided for the CE is clear, we will only know how CE is actualised in context after policies are elaborated on in various decadal plans aimed at collaboration with other vital stakeholders (such as civil society, academia and industry experts).

In the last months of 2019, the Draft National Waste Management Strategy (Draft NWMS) was published for comment. Whilst we await the finalised strategy, the Draft NWMS introduced the fashionable concept of the CE as the core objective alongside waste minimisation. The Draft NWMS is therefore the second South African policy document to incorporate the concept of the CE, giving an indication of how CE would work within the specific context of waste management.

In the Draft NWMS the ‘CE’ and ‘waste minimisation’ were heralded as the two objectives of the draft strategy. Although the introduction of circularity is commendable, the draft signals a misunderstanding of the concept of CE by seeing waste minimisation as a separate goal. While there are multiple definitions of ‘circular economy’ most would encompass waste minimisation as a defining characteristic.

The Draft NWMS would need to think far more carefully about the definition of the circular economy as a lifecycle theory aimed towards fascinating areas of design innovation, product memory and tapping into existing stocks to revitalise discarded materials.

Although both the STI White Paper and the Draft NWMS define the CE with reference to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s definition, the policies differ in their interpretation of the CE. The STI White Paper identifying the CE as an opportunity area, whilst the NWMS establishes the CE as the core strategic approach. Only through implementation will the effectiveness of this lofty concept be discernible.

Another development during the latter half of 2019 was the shift away from Industry Waste Management Plans towards the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Principle. Although the shift came as a shock to industries in waste management who had spent a fair amount of time working on Industry Waste Management Plans– EPR was soon invited as a useful direction towards effective waste management.

EPR is a mechanism used to attach responsibility to the producers of an item for the end-of-life management of said item. According to South African law, EPR entails taking physical and financial responsibility, which includes waste minimisation strategies, consumer awareness and mitigating potential health and environmental risks through financial support. [section 1 of the National Environmental Management Waste Act]

Therefore, the ones who benefit from the creation and distribution of an item is also responsible for the true social and environmental costs of the product. The aim is to encourage sustainable development by making the producer internalise the environmental costs of their product. EPR is one of the useful tools to encourage CE.

In theory, the promotion of EPR will create an economic incentive for producers to create more sustainable designs, using less harmful production processes, less environmentally devastating chemicals and make the recycling process easier. In the grand scheme of things, this would promote the CE and sustainable development whist lessening the financial burdens of the general and hazardous waste management on under-resources local municipalities, usually the ones tasked with managing waste.

Economic incentives are often coupled in this case with environmental incentives around waste minimisation, that being less pollution and more environmentally safe product designs. Many caveats can follow these two incentives and it would be up to policy designs to anticipate the potential pitfalls and address them. One caveat is that EPR would require very clear links to the practices of individual producers. Those producers need to reap the benefit of their practice rather than adhering to a general fee. Without this, individual producers are not economically incentivised to innovate, and will increase the possibility of freeloaders paying the general fee without trying to change their practice. The use of a common fee attributed to all producers in a specific producer responsibility organisation (organisations in charge of collecting, managing and implementing the financial and physical management of the products) would therefore be ineffective.

Part Two will investigate the newly published draft EPR regulations and emphasize the need to define clearly the responsible stakeholders. These stakeholders then need to be very clear on the role they play in the EPR Scheme and how justified penalties and accountability structures will guide the actions of each player. See Part Two for comments and thoughts on the first draft EPR regulations, their connection to CE and how they fall short on clear definitions and clarity needed in the case of shared responsibility when it comes to individual stakeholders when guided by lofty ideals.

Written by Aysha Lotter.