Look around you. How much plastic can you see? Notice the container for your body lotion; the container for your bottled water and/or drink; the straw you used for your smoothie; plastic packaging bags. Do you know where all that plastic is going to end up?
Everybody in either a household, office or neighbourhood in the country has various types of plastics that are not recyclable/reusable and which at end-of-life are littered on the streets, caught in fences and trees, dumped in drains, rivers, and lagoons, the ocean and all manner of places where they cannot biodegrade decompose. This is where the problem lies.
Even if you do recycle, chances are you’re still adding to the astronomical plastic pollution without even noticing. It is therefore imperative to consider just how large the scale of the problem is.
Most of Africa’s rural towns and growing cities, rivers and coastlines are increasingly becoming heavily polluted with discarded plastic packaging and other plastic waste. Rapid population growth and poor waste management practice are among the main drivers of plastic pollution in modern times, thus making Africa a hotspot for plastic pollution both now and in the future.
Plastic waste management has become a topical issue, especially the contamination of marine and freshwater environments. Nearly 513 million tonnes of plastics wind up in the oceans every year; and the major contributors from Africa are Egypt (0.97 tonnes), Nigeria (0.85 tonnes), and South Africa (0.63 tonnes), ranking 7th, 9th and 11th in the list of 20 major polluters. In many African countries, approximately 12% of waste plastics are recycled and the rest are disposed of, burned, or buried.
A significant proportion of the plastic that ends up on African shores is produced in developed, industrialized countries. By 2010, it was estimated that close to 4.4 million tons of mismanaged plastic waste were in oceans and seas off the coast of Africa every year. A 2022 estimate has put this number at 17 million tons. By 2030, plastic waste is expected to double to 165 million tons in African countries. Most of this will be in Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
More recent circumstances have suggested that due to end-user demand for plastic products on the continent, by 2060 eight African countries will be in the top ten nations with the highest plastic waste generation rates. Overall, this results in a large quantity of waste ending up in open and uncontrolled dump sites. It doesn’t help that eighteen of the fifty largest dump sites are on the continent. For example, Agbogbloshie Recycling Site in Accra, Ghana is situated along the Odaw River and has received between 1.75 and 2.5 million tons of waste in 13 years.
While the fight against plastic waste is gaining more resonance in Africa, the use of plastic bags is still well-rooted in customs and practice, at the expense not only of the environment but also of public health.
While the picture is grim, not all hope is lost.
African countries need to embrace a circular economy to lessen plastic waste production and pollution whilst promoting environmentally friendly and sustainable growth.
A circular economy — the concept of reducing and reusing waste — could help the continent solve plastic pollution challenges. In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. There are actions required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic in Africa.
The vision for a circular economy for plastic has six key points:
• Elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation, and new delivery models is a priority
• Reuse models are applied where relevant, reducing the need for single-use packaging
• All plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable
• All plastic packaging is reused, recycled, or composted in practice
• The use of plastic is fully decoupled from the consumption of finite resources
• All plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals, and the health, safety, and rights of all people involved are respected.
There is a need for a circular economy of waste plastics in Africa. Potential mitigating strategies include reduction, reuse, recycling, waste conversion to energy, and appropriate policy frameworks for plastic control and restriction.
A model can be made of the Rwandan experience. In June 2019, Rwanda’s Cabinet adopted a draft law prohibiting the manufacture, use and sale of single-use plastics.
Rwanda demonstrates that a significant reduction in plastic import and use can be achieved with bans on plastic bags, restrictions, and strict enforcement. For instance, the use of polymers is now at the minimum level.
In the last decade, Rwanda has witnessed a yearly GDP increase of between 4.7 and 8.9% and an increase in per capita GDP from $1229/year in 2008 to $2080/year in 2017. This demonstrates that with the right policies, a reduction in plastic import and use in a country is possible alongside overall industrial growth, without negative impacts.
The experience in Rwanda contrasts with the otherwise increasing plastic consumption in other African countries making it imperative for African governments to actively participate in negotiations towards a new global treaty to combat plastic pollution to offer perspectives and priorities from the African context.
In March this year, The Fifth Session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly on Wednesday in Nairobi Kenya, adopted a historic resolution to end plastic pollution.
The resolution, which was co-authored by Rwanda and Peru, sets in motion the development of an international, legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution.
Control measures must target professionals in the sector and the general public, those who use plastic in their everyday lives, in equal measure. A framework also needs to be put in place so that businesses that go into plastics recovery or recycling do not think that it will be a loss-maker.
But the fight is not for one single country to take on. Customs and consumption habits have to change. This is beyond dispute. There are small changes everyone can make simply by being more aware and changing our habits. It starts by being conscious. Once we become aware of the seeming omnipresence of plastic, we’ll soon realize where we can make changes.