There is an in-joke that in most African homes, you can be sure to find a plastic bag that holds other plastic bags. The joke goes further to surmise that whenever you open an ice cream container in an African home, there is a 90 percent chance that the content is anything but ice cream. It has since been turned into a storage container rather than be disposed of!
While growing up in the eighties, we had women from the surrounding communities walk into the university campus on Saturdays, going from house to house asking for empty containers and old newspapers. The Tree-Top juice bottles, empty tins, and used plastic containers all made the list. We, the kids in anticipation of these weekend visits gathered these items and happily exchanged them for a few kobo coins which would be used to purchase candy, or any other sweet treats guaranteed to ruin our already fledgling milk teeth.
Chances are, most of you reading this can relate to at least one of these examples. This may be an indication that Africans innately abhor waste, and the age-long concept of recycling has been replicated over the years through various informal models in our communities. Why hasn’t it been channeled into a culture that formally drives environmental awareness and collective responsibility through waste management? Rather, we still have communities where rain is believed to be nature’s solution to waste disposal.
Lagos generates 2,250 tonnes of plastic waste daily: typical of a bustling metropolis with the teeming packaging needs of her growing 25 million population. Whilst this may appear to be negligible compared to the estimated 40 million tonnes for the US, one must consider the impact of the statistics on our communities and the key drivers of plastic pollution to address it definitively.
The real price of plastic
What is the real price of plastic waste? One word – Life! Human life, marine life. When plastic waste isn’t properly disposed of, it ends up in drainage systems, our body systems, waterways, and eventually, the ocean. At best, they end up in landfills or incinerators which release Greenhouse Gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Along the drainage systems, plastics block the free flow of rainwater through the drains, causing stagnant water, the perfect breeding ground for life-threatening diseases and malaria.
The blocked drains with increasing rainfall lead to flooding. The floods not only affect roads and transportation but sweep away lives and property.
Further, microplastics, which are fragments from the breakdown of larger plastics, particles from commercial production processes, and other byproducts of polyethylene, find their way into the human body through food and the air we breathe. A few years ago, WWF, an environmental conservation organization in Singapore, ran an advertising campaign called “Your Plastic Diet”. The campaign relatedly demonstrated how much microplastic we unknowingly ingest, which is equivalent to 5 grams of plastic per week or one credit/debit card per week! These microplastics release toxins known as endocrine disruptors with severe implications for chronic medical conditions and fertility.
It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. An average of 18,640 tonnes of plastic waste sweeps into the Atlantic Ocean from Nigeria annually. The coastal species and sea creatures ingest or are entangled in plastic, which results in death and the threat of extinction of our biodiversity.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
As the economy, purchasing power, and demand for consumer goods increase, the demand for packaging of goods will increase, at a rate that meets the rising need. This means a booming economy and accelerated development on the continent could have the unintended consequence of increased waste production, especially plastic waste, if not proactively addressed. So, as we remain on course with our development goals, we must address the often-overlooked potential aftermath of attaining those goals.
Rapid population growth including the rural-urban drift, translates to growing demand for goods and services. The urban population growth rate in Africa is an estimated 3.5% annually. Meeting this level of demand requires low-cost production of consumer goods, leading to a simplistic “Take-Make-Waste” economic model. The primary issue with this model is that it de-prioritizes sustainable development for short-term gains.
Where sustainable development is not prioritized, the tell-tale signs will flash across the regulatory framework and enforcement landscape of development sectors such as waste management and town planning. Oftentimes, as you would find in Africa, the existence of legislation isn’t the problem. Enforcement and alignment to interdependent regulations tend to hinder the attainment of regulatory objectives.
Developing nations are usually plagued with the consequences of a weak regulatory framework around town planning and attendant waste management challenges. In Nigeria for example, flooding disasters have occurred since the 1960s. Circa 1980, the city of Ibadan, one of Nigeria’s oldest cities experienced the famed “Omiyale, agbara ya sobu” (translated as “water has flooded homes, the flood has ravaged shops”) flood. Simply put, the destruction affected both homes and businesses. Two major rivers serving as major waterways through the city were clogged with waste making the rivers overflow their banks, leaving a wave of destruction in their wake that took years to recover from. Sadly, similar incidents still occur in different parts of the country over forty years after, still rooted in rapid rural-urban drift without adequate planning and regulatory framework, waste disposal into waterways and drainage systems, and the effect of climate change.
In all the above, one thing stands out as both the cause and the solution – planning or lack of it!
Since we understand that economic growth without planning for the population explosion are a major driver of plastic waste, what is the way forward? The answer lies most certainly, not in decreasing the pace of development and urbanization, but in finding sustainable ways to manage the unintended consequences of our development aspirations.
Circularity as a critical success factor
Research has shown that developing a circular economy can reduce oceanic invasion of plastics by more than 80 percent by the year 2040, and plastic production by 55 percent. Besides the highly probable issue of weak enforcement models, what other issues hinder effective plastic waste management? Is it the rate of production of single-use plastic vis-a-vis the cost of innovation for more sustainable packaging? Is durability of plastic bags a threat to high turnover and profits because of the likelihood of reduced demand? Is that enough to deter the exploration of more sustainable and reusable materials? Further, the fact that plastic bags are cheap and readily available appears to mean there is little or no inclination to reuse, and to the producer, it means increased demand and production.
To move the needle, legislation, and effective monitoring mechanisms will be required to regulate the production and consumption of single-use plastic. In the UK for instance, since 2015, major supermarkets are compelled by regulation to introduce a 5p charge for providing single-use plastic carrier bags to shoppers. As of 2020, Government data showed a 95 percent reduction in sale of plastic carrier bags!
Further, effective legislation must also target building a viable government-backed ecosystem for recycling. The ecosystem is made up of formal and informal sub-sectors. Primary to developing a culture and system of recycling is the security of the end-to-end supply chain that drives the practice and builds the market for it.
First, there must be a source of waste material and a collection mechanism made up of informal pickers. These pickers are community members activating the waste management drive by collecting recyclable items in exchange for cash in support of their livelihoods. These informal pickers would enhance recycling in remote and less accessible areas. Then we have the formal pickers who should be constituted under an integral unit of the state’s waste management agency, responsible for driving recycling within the metropolis.
Further, there must be manufacturing capacity for the conversion of the waste material to alternative products and lastly, a market for the products from the recycling process. All of this must be backed by an incentive framework to ensure viability for the informal pickers, and a regulatory framework that promotes compliance through the state waste management agency. The continued absence of this framework begs the question of how intentional we are about effective waste management as a continent.
Nonetheless, some countries in Africa have distinguished themselves in the global effort of plastic waste control. One of such countries is Rwanda, in 2008 it banned the manufacturing, import, use, and sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags. Subsequently, it enacted new legislation to phase out single-use plastic, control the unnecessary consumption of single-use plastics and make plastic waste an investment opportunity.
The role of private sector
In addition to governments effort, private sector organizations also have a role to play in addressing plastic pollution. In 2021, the Sahara Group, an energy conglomerate, through its Social Sustainability vehicle, the Sahara Group Foundation took up the gauntlet by establishing it’s first recycle hub within the Ijora community, in Lagos Nigeria. The initiative was aimed at recycling and upcycling to promote a circular economy, and to ensure a sustainable environment for over 400 households.
This year, the Sahara Group Foundation partnered the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF) and WeCyclers (implementing partners), to establish 12 recycle hubs across the state, under the “Go-Recycling Project”. The partnership is creating an ecosystem through which communities are encouraged to drive behavioural change by deriving a tangible benefit from waste management, while promoting sustainable environments.
One of the expected outcomes of the Go-Recycling project is to establish a successful model for the implementation of similar projects in different locations. The potential impact of such an initiative across Africa on job creation, promoting circular economies and development of the manufacturing sector is immense. This is just one of the ways in which the Sahara Group Foundation translates global socio-economic objectives into practical life-changing experiences for communities.
As the world collaborates to beat plastic pollution, it is important that Africa understands the implications of turning a blind eye. Africa must attain her development goals. Africa must push for a just and inclusive energy transition. But Africa must also be ready and equipped to deal with the unintended consequences that come with economic growth and development, one of which is plastic pollution. We cannot wish it away or ignore it into oblivion. Africa must act – proactively and intentionally, to beat the menace.
Ejiro Gray, a lawyer and Director of Governance and Sustainability at Sahara Group. She is also a Trustee of the Sahara Group Foundation.