The Department of Environmental Affairs is currently engaging industry and consumer bodies on proposals to phase out or completely ban plastic products like straws and microbeads.

Mark Gordon, the department’s deputy director-general for chemical and waste management, said the single-use products are considered to be unfriendly to the environment, especially the marine sector.

Gordon was briefing the department on the banning of single-use plastics on Wednesday.

He said single-use plastic products like earbuds, straws, stirrers, plastics like table cups, tableware and polystyrene packaging “have a very short lifespan and becoming a real problem in the environment”.

“We have started a discussion document that we have shared with a number of stakeholders and we are in the process of inviting comments around it.

“I think we presented previously around this on what would be their replacements. “Are there replacements for these? We know that to some extent there has been a replacement of plastic straws with paper straws and I am not sure if everybody likes it. There are bamboo straws, there are stainless steel reusable straws,” he said.

He said while the process unfolds, there has been heightened consumer awareness campaigns that are aimed at encouraging members of the public to refuse the straw.

This includes programmes like “the last straw”, “ditch the straw” and “refuse the straw”. Gordon said a lot of restaurant chains have stopped giving out straws to patrons completely, while others would ask a customer if they wanted a straw.

He said whenever the department does beach clean-ups, earbuds and plastic stirrers featured high up on the list of the waste and added that these posed a great danger to marine species.

“So … we are prioritising this. We have identified those five as the priority products that we need to address and we are doing this in a matrix where we look at these products – what are the compostable alternative availability, the cost of the alternative, the market readiness in terms of availability in South Africa – and we are really quantifying every aspect of this to look at its market readiness.

“We don’t want to unnecessarily [intervene] where we were going to really skew markets and people will be out of work and there are issues around jobs and all of that and we are working really closely with the industry.

“In all of them, the status is that we are still in consultation with the industry, consumer groups and the retailers on how we could phase out or ban these products and what would be the replacement and alternatives for them,” he said.

Gordon also said that the department was working with the Department of Health and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority to look at the phasing out of microbeads in cosmetics.