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Environmental Policy Processes Surrounding South Africa’s Plastic Bags Regulations

Tensions, Debates and Responses in Waste Product Regulation

by Godwell Nhamo

e-Book PDF
Institution: Rhodes University
Advisor(s): Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka & Professor Gavin Staude
Degree: Ph.D. in Environmental Education
Year: 2005
Volume: 325 pages
ISBN-10: 1599426528
ISBN-13: 9781599426525


This study was conducted in South Africa. South Africa is the first country within the Southern African Development Community to have regulated plastic shopping bags waste through the imposition of both a standard on thickness and a levy. Given this scenario, the Plastic Bags Regulations present an illustrative case for researching complexity, uncertainty and controversies surrounding a new trend in environmental policy making, namely waste product regulation. The thesis focuses on understanding and investigating tensions, debates and responses emerging from the policy process as actors and actor-networks put not only the Plastic Bags Regulations into circulation as focal actant (token) but also other actants and actant-networks as well. To this end, a research question that addressed environmental policies, tensions, debates and responses that informed the development of South Africa’s Plastic Bags Regulations was spelt out. The research objectives included the need to: (1) analyse selected international environmental policy processes surrounding plastic shopping bags litter and waste regulation and how these influenced developments in South Africa; (2) identify actors, actants and actor/actant-networks that shaped and were being transformed by South Africa’s Plastic Bags Regulations and explain the tensions, debates and responses arising in the policy processes; (3) identify environmental policy outputs and assess outcomes emerging from the formulation and implementation of South Africa’s Plastic Bags Regulations; and (4) establish patterns in environmental policy process reforms around South Africa’s Plastic Bags Regulations.

The language of actors (human), actants (non-human) and actor/actant-networks brings to the fore the aspects of processes and relationships that exist around them. As such, insights from the actor/actant-network theory (AANT) were drawn upon to inform the research. AANT enquiry framework collapses binaries such as nature/society, art/science, structure/agency and global/local historically associated with a particular type of social theory. AANT also denies that purely technical, scientific or social relations are possible (the notion of quasi-objects or token). Data sets were generated ‘following’ the Plastic Bags Regulations as token actant with time frames ranging from prior to, during and after the formulation of the regulations. Similarly, data analysis drew insights from AANT’s four moments of translation namely problematisation, interessement, enrolment and mobilisation, with the intervention theory providing an evaluative perspective that complemented AANT.

The findings were that after the promulgation of the first draft of the Plastic Bags Regulations in May 2000, tensions emerged around the nature of regulation (whether command and control – preferred by government or self regulation – preferred by industry and labour). In this regard the latter group raised concerns about jobs, income and equipment loss as well as the need to have a holistic approach to waste management rather than targeting a single product at a time whilst the former maintained that this would not be so. As such, education, awareness and stringent antilitter penalties were proposed by industry and labour as sustainable responses to the problem of plastic shopping bags waste rather than regulation. These debates continued and resulted in minor amendments to the original regulations as finalised by Government in May 2002. However, industry and labour continued lobbying government resulting in the conclusion of the Plastic Bags Agreement in September 2002 and the ultimate repulsion of the May 2002 regulations in May 2003. As revealed by this research, these responses led to broader social responses and further tensions as demand for plastic shopping bags went down by about 80% although an estimated 1000 jobs were lost and a number of companies lost equipment and business (with some closing down) following the implementation of the regulations. During implementation, debates emerged around the need to promote locally made carry facilities with two alternatives in sight namely: the Green Bag and the Biodegradable Plastic Bag. Debates also took place regarding enforcement of the new law resulting in the amendments of various pieces of legislation including the Environmental Conservation Act, Environmental Management Act and the Revenue Laws Act. Overall, a 15-year policy reform cycle and sub-cycles was determined. The research also established that the government considered the regulations a success and was already implementing similar initiatives to regulate other waste products, among them, used tyres, used oil and glass, confirming the trend towards waste product regulation in South Africa.

From these research findings, a series of conceptual frameworks were drawn up to clarify the nature of tensions, debates and responses surrounding certain lead actors, actants and actor/actant-networks. Some of the conceptual frameworks that emerged around the actors and actor-networks include Organised Government, Organised Industry and Organised Labour. Conceptual frameworks that emerged around key actants and actant-networks include the Integrated Pollution and Waste Management, Plastic Bags Regulations as well as the discourses surrounding the Green bag and biodegradable plastic bags. The thesis concludes by reflecting on how the above and the grand actor/actant-network conceptual frameworks emerging from this research might be adopted with varying degrees of flexibility to research environmental and waste management policy processes in different waste product regulation set-ups.