Inside Africa's purge of single-use plastics
What you need to know:
- A raft of legislative interventions is driving Africa’s onslaught on plastic waste as startups on the continent deploy innovative solutions to turn plastic into bricks, furniture and art.
The volume of plastics in Africa’s landfills is gradually shrinking, as lawmakers across the continent tighten legislation on single-use plastic and packaging to help curb pollution.
Out of 54 states, 34 have passed laws and made ordinances proscribing or limiting the use of non-recyclable plastic, making the continent a model for eradicating disposable plastic.
But sealing off contrabands and policing the black markets still remains a challenge in most countries even as big multinational firms are blamed for the plastic waste choking Africa.
A 2021 Plastic Waste Makers index, revealed that just 20 companies produce more than half of the world’s single-use plastic waste. None of them is in Africa.
The Index identifies countries and entities contributing to the climate crisis with virgin polymer production, ranging from face masks to plastic bags and bottles which often end up in oceans or are burned or thrown into landfills.
It shows predominantly American, European, Asian and Middle Eastern companies churn out 55 per cent of the world’s plastic waste.
America’s ExxonMobil and Dow are the largest disposable plastic waste polluters, contributing 5.9 million and 5.6 million tons to the global garbage nightmare respectively in 2019.
China’s oil firm, Sinopec and chemicals company Indorama Ventures churned out 5.3 million and 4.6 million tons of polymer waste, with Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco clocking in fifth with 4.3 million tons in the period under review.
Data shared by Greenspace show that out of 54 states, 34 have either passed a law banning plastics and implemented it or have passed a law with the intention of implementation.
“Of those, 16 have totally banned plastic bags or have done so partially without yet introducing regulations to enforce the bans. Compared to the rest of the world, the continent is seemingly doing a great job,” reads the report in part.
In 2005, Eritrea became the first state to adopt an outright ban on plastic bags, with Benin following suit by outlawing the production and importation of non-biodegradable plastic bags.
States that are also phasing out plastics are Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Nigeria, Mali, Tunisia, Malawi, Mauritania, the Gambia and Mauritius.
Others are DRC Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Seychelles, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Gabon, Ethiopia, Cameron, Djibouti, Morocco, Niger, Togo, Zimbabwe, Cabo Verde, Burundi and Guinea Bissau.
As governments move to rein in single-use plastics, startups are helping to recycle them into products.
In Accra, Ghana, entrepreneur Nelson Boateng is making construction bricks from plastic waste, like his Kenyan counterpart, Nzambi Matee who founded Nairobi-based startup firm, Gjenge Makers, which makes lightweight and low-cost building material from recycled plastic mashed with sand to make bricks that are stronger than concrete.
In South Africa, Mbongeni Buthelezi is world-renowned for up-cycling plastic to create highly textured portraits at his studio in Booysens, Johannesburg. There are many more artists across the continent turning plastic into beautiful art –– decors and sculptures.
Meanwhile, a Kenyan startup, Noma Green Plastic limited is giving a second life to 30 tonnes of it every month, turning trash into tables, tiles, chairs, benches and other outdoor furniture.
However, despite commendable efforts to ban plastics, most African countries have not put in place efficient waste disposal and management systems.
Nevertheless, according to a UNEP Africa Waste Management Outlook, African states contribute the least to the global plastic waste crisis with the bulk of the waste being organic.
As of 2019, Africa generated 180 million tons of municipal waste at the rate of 0.5 per cent per capita daily, according to Science Direct, against a population of just over 1 billion.
UNEP data shows 57 per cent was organic waste, 13 per cent was plastic, and 9 per cent was paper, while metal and glass made up 4 per cent each.
This is in sharp contrast to countries such as Australia where an average Australian generates 59 kg of plastic waste each year, according to the Plastic Waste Markers Index.
In 2019, according to the index, the United States plastic waste per capita was 53 kg, South Korea (44 kg), United Kingdom (44 kg), Japan (37 kg), France (36 kg), Saudi Arabia (35 kg), Spain (34 kg), Canada (34 kg) and Italy (23 kg). In Germany, on average, one person generated 25 kg, while in China and India they produced 18 kg and 4kg respectively.
However, data published by Science Advances in 2020 and reported by Forbes, recorded far higher figures.
That data found that residents of the U.S. and the U.K. produce more plastic waste per person, the former generating an average of 105 kg of plastic per year and the latter generating almost 99 kg.
That report further stated that of the 300 million tons of plastic trash produced annually, at least 8.8 million tons end up in the ocean.
In Africa as a whole, the amount of garbage dumped was 70 per cent, with plastic waste generated annually standing at just over 17 million tons, according to Science Direct.
The growth of plastic waste cannot continue, many of the research papers warn.
“An environmental catastrophe beckons: much of the resulting single-use plastic waste will end up as pollution in developing countries with poor waste management systems,” the Plastic Waste Markers Index said in part.
“The projected rate of growth in the supply of these virgin polymers will likely keep new, circular models of production and reuse ‘out of the money without regulatory stimulus.”
According to the UK's Guardian, in the next five years, the global capacity to produce virgin polymers for single-use plastics could grow by more than 30 per cent. By 2050, at current projections, plastic is expected to account for 5 to 10 per cent of world greenhouse gas emissions.