(Photo: PETCO)

Published in South African Journal of Science.

Chitaka, T.Y. 2021


The increasing global concern surrounding plastic marine pollution has placed a spotlight on the key items identified as major contributors. The subsequent public outcry has forced key value-chain actors – such as brand owners, retailers and restaurateurs – to be seen to be responding to the issue. However, are their responses motivated by a true desire for environmentalism or are actors engaging in greenwashing? In this case study on plastic straws, the brand owners and retailers interviewed are driven by a desire to meet consumer expectations. This desire has led to the substitution of plastic straws with glass, paper, and polylactide alternatives. However, the broader environmental implications of the alternatives are rarely considered. This single-minded focus on marine pollution has the potential to result in inadvertent greenwashing as alternative products may result in more harm in other environmental compartments.

Published in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

Chitaka, T.Y., and von Blottnitz, H. – 2021


The global agenda to address the increasing accumulation of plastic in the marine environment is challenging key decision-makers to develop grounded responses. Current life cycle assessment approaches are unable to adequately quantify the environmental damage associated with accumulation in the natural environment, presenting a critical challenge for the life cycle management of plastic products. This paper investigates the feasibility and potential influence of using leakage rates as a proxy indicator to inform the life cycle management of plastic products. 


A method is proposed for the quantification of leakage rates which utilises results from beach accumulation rate surveys coupled with sales data as a proxy for waste generation. It is demonstrated for the case of Cape Town, South Africa, for selected plastic products. Through interviews with key value-chain actors in South Africa, the potential influence of providing such specific knowledge on current approaches to plastic product life cycle management is investigated. 

Results and discussion 

The developed leakage rates demonstrate that vastly different leakage rates exist for different types of products. In particular, plastic products associated with food consumed on-the-go were found to be highly prone to leakage. In South Africa, value-chain actors are taking a more active role in plastic pollution mitigation primarily through widespread adoption of design for recycling in packaging strategies and investment in downstream recycling activities. However, the lack of reliable information regarding plastic flows is still a constraint, resulting in a multitude of approaches for strategy development particularly when it comes to the prioritisation of products for intervention. This has the potential to result in ineffective strategies due to the inadvertent prioritisation of products which are not major contributors to marine pollution. 


The adoption of leakage rates as a proxy indicator for potential marine environmental impacts takes a step towards addressing a critical limitation of life cycle assessment, enabling the consideration of leakage into the marine environment during product life cycle management. Furthermore, product-specific leakage rates have the potential to provide guidance for the development of targeted strategies to address plastic pollution.

Published in Environmental Research Letters.

Ryan, P.G. and Chitaka, T.Y. 2022

We question whether the rapid growth in research on the impacts of environmental plastics over the last decade has substantially improved our understanding of these impacts. By the mid-1990s, the major environmental and economic impacts of plastics were sufficiently well known to conclude that they posed a significant environmental threat. Accordingly, the focus of the Third International Marine Debris Conference shifted from researching impacts to devising solutions. We should re-embrace this message, and study how best to change the inappropriate human behaviors that lie at the heart of the plastics crisis. The main role of natural scientists should be to provide robust monitoring data to assess the success of the various mitigation efforts.

Published in Frontiers in Sustainability.

Chitaka, T.Y., de Kock, L. and von Blottnitz, H. 2022

An estimated 15,000–40,000 tons of plastic waste leaks into the oceans from South Africa annually. This has put the management of plastic products in the spotlight. In South Africa, life cycle management (LCM) is not a term that is commonly used however some companies have adopted LCM tools and concepts including cleaner production, sustainable procurement and design for recycling. Interviews with key value chain actors were conducted in 2017 and 2018–2019, on the influence of plastic leakage on plastic product life cycle management. In 2017, actors largely did not view themselves as responsible for plastic leakage, mostly putting blame on consumers. During the second interview period, a shift was observed wherein the actors recognized the role of product design in plastic leakage and started taking a more active role in its mitigation from the perspective of extended producer responsibility. The drivers for addressing marine pollution mirrored those for the adoption of LCM tools, including maintaining a competitive advantage and meeting investor and consumer expectations. In 2020, the South African Plastic Pact was developed and launched, which aims to create a circular economy for plastic packaging. As of October 2021, the majority of interviewed value chain actors are members. Ultimately the increasing concern surrounding plastic pollution has directly influenced value chain actors’ perspectives and actions.

Published in South African Journal of Science.

Chitaka, T.Y., de Kock, L. and von Blottnitz, H. 2022

Waste pickers are widely acknowledged as an integral part of the formal and informal economy, diverting waste into the secondary resource economy through urban mining. Urban mining in itself is considered to be a source of livelihoods. We investigated the livelihoods of e-waste pickers through 110 surveys in Cape Town, South Africa. Waste pickers often indicated that they were engaged in the sector not by choice but by necessity, expressing that earning money is the only enjoyable aspect of their job. The results from the study substantiate that it is unlikely that waste pickers could survive on e-waste picking alone as 83.3% of reported incomes were below minimum wage, with 22.9% below the food poverty line. Thus, the majority of waste pickers collected a wide array of recyclables. We also found that the waste pickers in Cape Town engage in multiple e-waste related activities, including collection, dismantling and processing to a lesser extent. They work long hours in arduous working conditions which present multiple hazards for their health and safety. Ultimately, e-waste pickers’ incomes cannot be considered commensurate with the nature of the work. Further, e-waste picking cannot be regarded as significantly contributing to livelihoods but is rather a survivalist strategy. The survivalist nature of the work does not allow waste pickers to move upwards in the waste value chain and benefit from greater income opportunities. Furthermore, their lack of skills prohibits waste pickers’ transition to formal employment. With a lack of options, it is necessary to ensure that the waste sector provides opportunities for decent work to enable workers to lift themselves out of poverty.

Published in South African Journal of Science.

Chitaka, T.Y. and Schenck, C. 2022

The transition towards a circular economy is becoming a priority in many countries globally. However, the circular bioeconomy has received relatively less attention. In South Africa, the valorisation of organic waste is a priority area as demonstrated by national goals to divert organic waste from landfill. To support the growth of the organic waste value chain it is important to gain an understanding of the different value chain actors and their activities. Through a series of semi-structured interviews across the industry, this paper unpacks the organic waste value chain including the roles of different actors and the interlinkages amongst them. Interviewed actors were those involved in the waste treatment sector, including consultants, composters and technology providers and installers. The value chain is characterised by a number of partnerships, including sub-contracting and outsourcing, which enable value chain actors to offer services that they do not necessarily have the in-house skills or capacity to deliver on their own. The majority of actors were not directly engaged in activities related to the treatment of waste, with many of them engaging in support activities to facilitate the treatment of waste. This finding may be attributed to the fact that support activities have relatively lower barriers to entry. This has the potential to create a bottleneck, in which there will be limited capacity for waste treatment as new entrants opt for engaging in support activities. Greater investment is needed from both private and public sources in the waste treatment sector, including support for new entrants. This investment will help enable the country to meet its goals for organic waste diversion whilst contributing to job creation.