During eXXpedition’s fifth Virtual Voyage, the multidisciplinary crew took part in a virtual discussion with local representatives from the Republic of South Africa to talk about the local challenges of the global plastics issue. This post summarises the thoughts, ideas, challenges and solutions discussed during the session. 


Officially the Republic of South Africa, South Africa is the southernmost country in Africa and is around twice the size of France. Most of South Africa’s landscape is made up of high, flat areas called plateaus. These lands are covered with rolling grasslands, called highveld, and tree-dotted plains called bushveld. South Africa has a temperate climate, surrounded by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans on three sides.

Natural History

South Africa is home to an extensive 2798 kilometres of coastline and is ranked as 6th out of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries. Ecotourism is prevalent in South Africa, with numerous mammals (lions, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, wildebeest, hippos and giraffes) attracting visitors each year. South Africa is also home to over 22,000 different plant species (around 9% of all known plant species on earth). In the last 40 years, however, South Africa has lost a large proportion of its natural habitat, largely due to overpopulation and deforestation. The marine environment is exceptionally rich in marine life too, with whales, sharks, seals, penguins and dolphins found in South Africa’s coastal waters. About 2,000 marine species visit South African waters at some point during the year. 

The Plastics Issue

In South Africa, only 16% of plastic is recycled, with the rest largely ending up in landfill, rivers and the ocean. South Africa is ranked 11th worst in terms of land-based litter entering the sea. A 2015 study estimated that 90,000 – 250,000 tonnes of mismanaged waste enter the sea each year from South Africa (Jambeck, 2015). South Africa is moving to crack down on plastic. In 2020, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy announced a phased ban on the manufacture, trade, and distribution of domestically produced and imported plastic carrier bags and plastic flat bags.

Representatives from South Africa joined a discussion with the eXXpedition crew, providing an insight into the issues it faces in terms of environmental impact and waste management. Read the highlights below:

Challenges Discussed

  • Dramatic population increase. 
  • The country is split into over 50 districts. 
  • Collaboration between different stakeholders (e.g. government, tribes, townships, industry etc.) 
  • Unclear municipality jurisdiction over waste dumping and waste management in tribal lands. 
  • Changing governments and therefore changing policies. 
  • Privatisation of former public enterprises by African National Congress, leading to high energy and water costs and poverty. 
  • Lack of education. 
  • Climate change means agriculture relies more on plastic for shading. 

Solutions Discussed

  • Collecting data – proof of issue. 
  • Incentives for picking up litter, bringing your own bag, recycling etc. 
  • Local initiatives. The Project Butterfly aims to preserve the environment for future generations by reshaping how communities perceive and engage with plastic waste. The initiative is also advancing a circular economy in South Africa, one that redesigns, recycles, reuses and remanufactures to keep materials at their highest value for as long as possible.
  • Zero waste mentality when designing products. 
  • Design that creates products that can be up-cycled, composted or effectively recycled. For example, Petco helps to divert upwards of 90,000 tonnes of PET plastic bottles from landfill every year. Once collected, the bottles are recycled into other products.
  • End fossil fuel subsidies fuelling big plastic producers. 
  • Introduce legislation that regulates plastic manufacturers. 
  • Investment in more recycling and waste management facilities. 

Find out more about Virtual Voyage: South Africa here.

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Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.