Switching to paper-stemmed earbuds might seem like a small difference to make, but it has a significant impact. On an annual basis this switch equates to over 11 million plastic stems not entering our waste streams or waterways. This is aligned to one of the retailer’s key commitments, which is to phase out single-use plastic, including plastic carrier bags.
Woolworths Holdings’ Group Head of Sustainability Feroz Koor comments that their customers play a vital role in the achievement of their ambitious plastics and packaging goals. “This phasing out of plastic-stemmed earbuds is another step in our journey that we take hand-in-hand with customers and suppliers,” he says. “The world is groaning under the weight of plastic pollution which takes hundreds of years to degrade, and because of this, we are living with all the plastic that’s ever been made. We know that many Woolies’ customers are deeply concerned about this impact, and we hope that their local Woolworths will become their go-to store for paper-stemmed earbuds.”
Not surprising, according to The Beach Co-op plastic earbud stems are a major polluter of our beaches. The non-profit organisation, which has been operating since 2015, organizes beach clean-ups and collects data on 12 top plastic litter items that they call ‘the Dirty Dozen’. Plastic earbud stems, which are not recycled in South Africa, are small and lightweight and they travel easily through waterways into the oceans. The Beach Co-op’s latest report, which is based on the findings of 44 beach clean-ups, ranks plastic earbud stems as the fifth highest polluter out of the Dirty Dozen. The organisation advises consumers to instead purchase paper, bamboo or wood-stemmed earbuds. Plastic-stemmed earbuds break down in the oceans into micro plastics which are then ingested by marine animals.
The World Bank projects that, by 2050 if current trends continue, waste volumes will triple in sub-Saharan Africa*. WWF South Africa (World Wide Fund for Nature) points out that more than 80% of the plastic pollution in our oceans is generated on land so we all need to take responsibility and do our bit.
Tatjana von Bormann, Senior Manager of WWF’s Policy and Futures Unit, says “We commend Woolworths’ commitment to reducing plastics and making better alternatives available to South African consumers. While certain plastics play a critical role in applications such as packaging for food preservation, our oceans are suffocating under this growing tide of plastic. If we want to chart a new course, we need to start asking ourselves which are the plastics we can live without?”
To achieve its commitment to phase out all single-use plastics, Woolworths has to date stopped selling plastic straws in all stores and stopped offering complementary plastic straws and cutlery at all Woolworths WCafés and Now Nows. The retailer, which has long been at the forefront of sustainability, has also launched a plastic bag free trial at Woolworths Steenberg store in Cape Town to test customers’ willingness to switch to reusable carrier bags.
*What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050 report.