We have some very exciting news! SPAR Eastern Cape, the region's biggest food retailer, has just announced that they have officially begun the process of phasing out all single-use plastic shopping bags in their stores. This is huge - with over 125 million customer visits a year, SPAR Eastern Cape have truly changed the responsible retail landscape in South Africa.

“We are committed to cleaning up our beautiful Eastern Cape. As the biggest food retailer in the region, we know that we can make an enormous difference to preserving our natural environment. We also know there's a lot more to the plastic issue - but we have to start somewhere. So we're making a start by calling a STOP to the use of plastic bags.” – SPAR Eastern Cape

This is an excerpt from the SPAR Eastern Cape press release in The Herald:

SPAR EC Managing Director Conrad Isaac acknowledged that although the 'STOP the Use of Plastic' campaign is a massive task, it would be irresponsible to continue operations without accepting some accountability for the amount of plastic plaguing the environment. The SPAR EC team and their retailers have pledged to take a stand by offering alternatives to plastic bags in their stores. This will include paper bags, long life bags and recyclable bags.

"Last year we sold 101 million plastic shopping bags," says Isaac. "These bags don't just disappear; they're lying in the street or in the veld, floating in a river or in the sea and endangering our natural resources."

"Something tangible has to be done," he adds. "Our dream is to clean up the Eastern Cape - starting by cleaning up our own backyard." He realises this will mean that ingrained habits of using plastic shopping bags would have to change - which will bring its own challenges.

"We know there has to be a massive education programme. We will work with schools, universities and the leaders of our province. We invite our customers to join us in solving a very real problem."

Isaac foresees the campaign evolving into a far bigger project - one that would eventually incorporate the collection and recycling of all plastic. "For now we are focussing on plastic shopping bags, but if we can change the habits of our communities, over time people will realise how important it is to clean up the whole environment."

"Our goal is to inspire a culture where it becomes a habit to pick up plastic and deposit it at collection points at our SPAR stores. This then goes to the recycling companies."

Isaac encourages everyone to join the campaign by adding their support as well as taking practical steps to clean up the environment. "This is a long-term campaign. It's the best we can do for the future of our children and the generations to follow."

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

“History matters. Today we are going to be writing history.” – Conrad Isaac, SPAR Eastern Cape Managing Director

This is huge - SPAR Eastern Cape covers 243 stores (SPAR, SaveMor, Tops, BuildIt and pharmacies). They work closely with a network of hundreds of local suppliers, who are going to be taking this journey towards a plastic bag-free shopping experience with them.

“You might be sitting here and thinking 'how is a little food company going to tackle a problem this big?' Well, we are going to tackle it head on.” – Conrad Isaac, SPAR Eastern Cape Managing Director

Photo by Leon Hugo/SPAR.

“People have asked me 'what if this doesn't work?' Failure is not an option. We know where we are going, we have seen the evidence and know we need to act. [...] This is a small step on a long, long journey. Thank you all.” – Conrad Isaac, SPAR Eastern Cape Managing Director

Launching in style

SPAR Eastern Cape Managing Director Conrad Isaac, the man driving this project, officially launched the campaign on 5 April 2018, at an event attended by local SPAR owners, community stakeholders, environmental activists and marine biologists. Plastic pollution is a community problem, and it is clear that SPAR Eastern Cape intend on engaging the community at every available opportunity and level.

“In 2017 our business sold 101 million plastic bags. That's a lot of bags. [...] Last year we could have covered 1924 rugby fields in plastic bags.” – Conrad Isaac, SPAR Eastern Cape Managing Director

Conrad acknowledged SPAR's place in this pollution cycle - as the Eastern Cape's largest retailer, not only do they employ tens of thousands of people, but their brand and products reach almost every community and every household in some way. As an integral part of this community, SPAR wants to change their role for the better.

“I don't know much about this [like the experts that spoke before me], but I know we sell plastic bags. And I know we are going to stop that.” – Conrad Isaac, SPAR Eastern Cape Managing Director

Photo by Leon Hugo/SPAR.

Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Campaigner Hayley McLellan, who is spearheading our Rethink The Bag campaign, was invited to present to the delegates. Hayley put forward a strong message - our reliance on single-use plastic is killing our planet. She reminded all that plastic never biodegrades, it doesn't "break down", it only "breaks up" into smaller pieces.  It will always be present in our environment. Every piece of plastic ever made is still on Earth somewhere.

“Big brands are afraid of inconveniencing their customers, but the world is choking because of it.” – Hayley McLellan, Two Oceans Aquarium - Rethink The Bag

Dr Lorien Pichegru of  Nelson Mandela University Zoology Department and several students took to the stage next - bringing the effects plastic has on the environment to a more relatable level, showing how plastic pollution isn't just an environmental issue, it's one that directly affects human beings.

“Plastic is fantastic. It has revolutionised our lives [...] but we are producing more than 300 million tons a year, and that number is increasing exponentially.” – Dr Lorien Pichegru, Algoa Bay Hope Spot Committee Chairperson

The problem, Dr Pichegru pointed out, is not "plastic" - it is how we use it. Using it for a single-use plastic shopping bag just doesn't make sense. It can only decay under radiation, and can last thousands of years if buried, or underwater - yet in South Africa we allow this waste to be part of the more than one million tons that enter our waterways and drainage systems annually.

“The properties of plastic that make it useful also make it a powerful pollutant.” – Dr Lorien Pichegru, Algoa Bay Hope Spot Committee Chairperson

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

MSc candidate Steven McGregor highlighted the multitude of other risks associated with plastics: Buoyant plastics carry invasive species and micro- and nanoplastic particles cause toxins (that are harmful to us) to enter the food chain. 

“Micro- and nanoplastics act as binding agents for persistent herbicides and carcinogens, carrying them up the food chain to us.” – Steven McGregor, NMU Zoology MSc candidate

There is a misconception in South Africa that pollution "creates" jobs, but the evidence shows that a circular economy where reuse and recycling are prioritised, creates more employment.

“Small changes amount to big differences” – Taryn Smit, NMU Zoology MSc candidate

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

The entire presentation was pulled into greater context for the Eastern Cape community with incredible presentations by Jenny Rump of the Zwartkops Conservancy and Lungisani Mbhele of Bayworld Oceanarium who both used relatable instances where plastic pollution has affected the community. From the townships of Uitenhage and the seal colonies of Algoa Bay, to the Swartkops Estuary, the eleventh most important estuarine ecosystem in the world, no part of the Eastern Cape has not been tainted by single-use plastic.

Photo by Leon Hugo/SPAR.

The future

SPAR Eastern Cape thanks those who have been ongoing partners in its mission to protect the environment - Zwartkops Conservancy, Bayworld Oceanarium, Two Oceans Aquarium's Rethink The Bag, Buffalo City Municipality, the Nelson Mandela University Zoology Department and media partners Algoa FM, TBWA and Umhlobo Wenene.

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

SPAR Eastern Cape is starting off their campaign by allowing and encouraging customers to trade in used plastic shopping bags for a stronger paper one. A wide variety of reusable options are also being made available in all 243 stores linked to SPAR Eastern Cape, and plastic bags are going to be removed as an option in the near future. SPAR Eastern Cape has also reaffirmed their commitment to work with local suppliers to reduce disposable plastic packaging used for the products themselves - with the long-term goal of turning SPAR plastic free. It will be a slow process, but we are very excited to see the first steps of this epic journey.

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

“If you walk into your bathroom and it was flooding, what would you do first - pick up the mop or turn off the tap? We can't keep mopping up plastic pollution, we need to turn off the tap” – Hayley McLellan, Two Oceans Aquarium - Rethink The Bag

We at the Two Oceans Aquarium are incredibly proud of the role we've been able to play in supporting SPAR Eastern Cape throughout this process through our Rethink The Bag Campaign and would like to encourage other retailers to follow the incredible example SPAR Eastern Cape has set - we are here to offer any support that you may need.

“Have fun and be proud of what you have achieved here!” – Hayley McLellan, Two Oceans Aquarium - Rethink The Bag

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

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