South Africa’s CSIR honoured by UN for championing plastics pollution research

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  • South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) says it is proud to have been named one of the 2023 United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Champions of the Earth for its contribution to the fight against plastic pollution. The annual Champions of the Earth award is the UN’s highest environmental honour. 

The CSIR has been selected as a 2023 Champion of the Earth, honoured in the Science and Innovation category. “The Science and Innovation category recognises individuals or organisations whose groundbreaking work pushes the boundaries of human knowledge and technology, with positive impacts on the environment.”

The Champions of the Earth laureates are selected by a global jury following a public nomination process and this year. The CSIR stood out among over 2 500 nominations.

“The CSIR is playing an important role in advancing plastic research, reflected in its multi-pronged approach to plastic research and development.

“This includes developing innovative technologies to enhance the industry, evidencing South Africa’s response to managing plastic waste, and where plastic cannot be avoided, developing innovative, high-value end-use markets that will drive a circular plastics economy, thereby keeping plastic out of the environment,” said UNEP.

CSIR CEO, Dr Thulani Dlamini, expressed his gratitude at receiving the highest environmental honour, saying it validates the calibre of CSIR researchers and the organisation’s drive to touch lives through innovation.

“The honour is a testament to the toil and commitment of our researchers to using science and technology to improve the quality of life. Tackling plastic pollution requires a collaborative and systemic approach as no one intervention will suffice, and neither will one entity have all the solutions,” said Dlamini.

He applauded the industry and government departments, especially the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) which, he said, continues to fund the development of alternative technologies that could help to alleviate pollution.

The #SolvePlasticsAfrica Hub, launched by the CSIR in November 2022, is an online hub that showcases the organisation’s capabilities in providing evidence-based solutions to addressing plastic pollution in Africa.

The CSIR said it aims to work with public and private sector organisations from across the continent to unlock opportunities and inform decision-making.

The institute also hosts Africa’s only laboratory equipped to test and verify imported or locally produced products that are being promoted as biodegradable.

“The UNIDO-funded testing laboratory is capable of establishing the conditions and timeframes for the biodegradation of materials. Tests can be performed under different conditions,” said CSIR Principal Researcher, Maya Jacob John.

John described this as critical to drive an evidence-based approach to plastics management.

“Several products are currently being marketed as more environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional plastics. Without evidence from testing and lifecycle analyses, businesses can misguide consumers. Industries can use the CSIR facilities for this purpose,” she said.

John added that as part of tackling the plastic waste pollution problem, the CSIR is developing materials for replacing single-use plastics that are not recycled.

These environmentally sustainable products are partially made from local biomass resources, like starch and cellulose.

In addition to the plastic-related research undertaken by the CSIR, the organisation also hosts the Waste Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap Implementation Unit on behalf of the department.

This unit supports the national system of innovation in undertaking relevant waste plastic-related research.

CSIR Waste RDI Roadmap Implementation Unit Manager, Professor Linda Godfrey, said partnerships are critical to managing waste in South Africa.

“We must support businesses in adopting sustainable practices and driving a circular plastics economy, where waste is designed out and value is recovered. Working closely with the government in providing evidence to support policy development and implementation that will result in improved waste management and reduced plastic pollution,” she explained.



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