Graduand’s dissertation essay on plastic waste wins silver at COP27

14 December 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 8 min.
Kirsten Barratt graduates on 15 December with a master’s degree in environmental law. Her co-authored essay, based on her dissertation, won a silver medal at COP27 in November.
Kirsten Barratt graduates on 15 December with a master’s degree in environmental law. Her co-authored essay, based on her dissertation, won a silver medal at COP27 in November.

South Africa ranks 11th among the world’s worst contributors to marine plastic waste, with single-use plastic making up the bulk of the country’s plastic waste. Kirsten Barratt’s master’s thesis in environmental law examines legal regulations around plastic waste and suggests incentives to reuse, recycle, and reduce this useful but pervasive commodity. And if Kirsten had her way, the thesis would be essential holiday reading for policymakers.

On the eve of graduating on 15 December, Kirsten’s thesis has already made waves at a high level. An essay she co-authored with fellow UCT student Koaile Monaheng (who is about to complete his MPhil in Climate Change and Sustainable Development) and Rhodes University’s Megan Mannion and based on the dissertation, won a silver medal in the COP27 Climate Law and Governance Day essay competition in November.

In September, Kirsten was a finalist in Falling Walls Lab Cape Town with a three-minute pitch, “Breaking the wall of plastic regulation”. This highlighted how and where plastic management policy should be focused.

These are important recognitions for a young, innovative thinker from Africa.

But more must be done to incentivise change, she said. Because South Africa is a developing country with limited resources, market-based incentives offer more cost-effective means of tackling the problem than the traditional command-and-control approach entrenched in law, she added.

Kirsten’s master’s dissertation explores the options available to policymakers to improve and expand market-based instruments that promote better recycling, reuse, and reduction of plastics in a circular waste economy.

Early sensitisation

Her interest in environmental affairs started in high school when she began as a volunteer at the Town Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town.


“It probably came from seeing lots of plastic washed up on the beach from a young age.”

“That really opened my eyes to environmental issues and sustainability. It probably came from seeing lots of plastic washed up on the beach from a young age and just noticing how it pollutes and how it’s mismanaged.”

The aquarium rewarded her work with a bursary to study marine biology and ocean atmospheric science at UCT. That interest burgeoned into a two-years master’s degree in environmental law, supervised by Professor Alexander (Sandy) Patterson, the director of UCT’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Law, Faculty of Law.

“I was very lucky that my supervisor was also interested in incentive-based regulation and the circular economy,” she said. “He introduced the concept to me.”

Kirsten is soon to complete her articles with a local law firm and has received a job offer for next year at an environmental consultancy. She remains firm about leveraging law to change the status quo. Although annoyed by the sheer bulk of plastic waste South Africans generate, she fully understands why it has become ubiquitous.


“It’s impossible to imagine life without plastic.”

“It’s impossible to imagine life without plastic,” she said. “Its properties, such as its durability, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness, have allowed it to dominate almost every industry worldwide. However, its successful properties are also its downfall with plastics becoming a major environmental and human health issue.”

To put the issue in perspective, South Africa’s virgin plastic consumption grew to around 1.544 million metric tonnes in 2018 and approximately 53% of that went into the packaging sector.

“Most of this is used for single-use packaging applications, which is the largest component of plastic waste generated in South Africa,” Kirsten added.


“Landfills, where paper items are smothered, do not present optimal conditions.”

Global plastic waste has reached approximately 6.3 million metric tonnes, most of which ends up in landfills or into the surrounding environment. Ninety-five percent of the waste South Africa produces goes into landfills.

“But that space is running out,” said Kirsten.

There has been a groundswell to replace plastic with items such as compostable straws and paper bags. But that’s not the answer either, she noted.

“These will decompose but only in ideal conditions. Landfills, where paper items are smothered, do not present optimal conditions. These items just compound the problem. And paper bags are far worse than plastic bags because manufacturing is so resource- and energy-intense.”

Keep plastic in the system

While South Africa has sound domestic legislation regulating plastic, it’s not enough to protect the environment from pollution, or foster different attitudes and behaviours, Kirsten said.

“Plastic must be kept in the circular economy for reuse and recycling and legislation must be shaped to do this, particularly incentive-based regulations.”

Currently, legislation relies on two main types of legal mechanism to curb pollution and promote sustainable management approaches. These are command and control measures *(punishment for bad behaviour, such as a fine or prison time). Incentives aim to reward good behaviour, which contrasts this, and market-based instruments, such as economic incentives, that reward good behaviour.

Incentive-based regulation can target the downstream or upstream aspects of plastic production.

The former targets the disposal stage of a plastic product’s lifecycle. The latter targets the creation stage. Examples of upstream instruments are initiatives such as positive refund schemes (the surcharge on a bottle of cooldrink, redeemable when you return the plastic bottle) and incentive-based regulations. 

Positive refund schemes have seen a burgeoning of waste pickers in South Africa, who play an invaluable role in the informal economy and reduce the plastic pollution burden.

“It’s a really good initiative, which government should try to support in some way,” said Kirsten.

Incentive-based regulations include taxing plastic bags but making these thicker and stronger to incentivise reuse. Sadly, this hasn’t been wholly successful, said Kirsten. These still litter our cities and countryside.

There are also options to incentivise households to sort their waste; getting people to think twice about what they throw into the black refuse bag by charging per kilo of garbage removed. These incentives directly encourage waste separation – glass, tins, aluminium, plastic, and paper – for recycling or repurposing.  

There is also a research and development tax where those doing scientific research on plastic receive rebates on what that work produces.

Upscale interventions

But these efforts must be introduced on a larger scale and in a meaningful way, said Kirsten. Supermarket chains could offer shopping tokens in exchange for plastic bottle returns, as is done in South America where plastic pollution has seen a massive burgeoning of waste pickers in the informal economy.


“I would love someone in the policy creation sphere to read the thesis, the people who actually make and implement the policies.”

“I don’t think environmental policies are particularly high on our government’s agenda at the moment, which is probably what is contributing to the big gap,” she noted.  

It’s clear that there is room for urgent change at many levels, but it needs creative thinking, vision and action from the country’s lawmakers.

“I would love those in the policy creation sphere to read the thesis, the people who actually make and implement the policies, to get some ideas about incentive-based regulations.

“What’s nice about incentive-based regulation, as opposed to commander control regulation, is the relatively low cost of implementation. In many cases, government can raise money if they implement the tax on certain items, for example a plastic bag tax. The advantage is that government can use that money for housing or social security. It should go back into environmental policies, but it often doesn’t.”

The cost effectiveness of this type of regulation makes it very attractive for developing countries.

“And Africa as a developing continent could really benefit from this type of regulation. We see it used so well in South America, which is a great example of how incentive-based regulation can be used properly.”

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