THE time for talking about Africa’s massive plastic waste problem is up. It’s time for action as we have reached a dramatic tipping point.
With most landfills simply uncontrolled dumpsites, an average waste collection rate of just 55%, and a population set to double come 2050, the world’s second most polluted continent is in serious trouble if it does not implement urgent national and regional action plans to stop plastic pollution from leaking into the environment.
This is the clarion call from the Sustainable Seas Trust’s African Marine Waste Network (AMWN) ahead of its second international conference on “Towards Zero Plastics to the Seas of Africa”, which is taking place in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, from May 23 to 27.
The warning comes amid fresh data released by WWF South Africa, indicating that, of the 19 million tonnes of plastic waste generated by Africa in one year, almost 90% was mismanaged. The future outlook for Africa sketches an even grimmer picture, with a further forecast that by 2060 eight African countries will be in the top 10 nations with the highest plastic waste generation rates.
The AMWN conference is preparing to welcome decision-makers from across the plastics value chain, municipal and national government leaders, researchers, and civil society stakeholders, with the aim of providing a platform for developing a homegrown framework to guide the practical actions each African nation or region must take.
In light of the recent UN Environmental Assembly’s resolution to address the global plastic challenge by establishing a voluntary international agreement by the end of 2024, the AMWN conference presents an opportunity for Africa to show the world that it can independently develop and implement long-term, sustainable solutions to free its countries from their plastic predicament.
Complex challenges call for homegrown solutions
The plastic issue in Africa is highly complex and is not considered a priority for many impoverished communities, where meeting basic survival needs is a daily challenge. However, a dynamic strategic framework that considers the diverse socio-economic realities of the continental and island states is essential to unlock the socio-economic opportunities innate to proper waste management and recycling.
Africa has an estimated recycling rate of just 4%, and just over half the continent’s waste is currently collected, leaving the remainder to become a health and environmental hazard on uncontrolled dump sites, or to leak into the environment and eventually enter the waterways and oceans.
“Africa’s current waste management systems cannot cope with the types and tonnages of waste being generated,” warns Professor Linda Godfrey, principal scientist at the CSIR and lead author of UN Environment Programme’s Africa Waste Management Outlook.
“We have poor waste collection and disposal, increasing uncontrolled dumping, and open burning of waste. With expected rates of population growth, urbanisation, and a growing middle class, we’re likely to see significant growth in waste generation, on the back of a broken system. All of this results in the leakage of waste and the resultant pollution of our land, water and air,” she says.
Godfrey is also one of the principal speakers at the upcoming conference, which aims to draw all 54 continental and island states together to develop a guidebook with a comprehensive decision-making framework to assist countries, business and organisations to take the correct practical actions to curb plastic leaking into the environment based on their unique economic and geographic circumstances.
National and regional action plans
SST founding trustee and current CEO and director of AMWN Dr Tony Ribbink says the goal of the conference is to concretise national and regional action plans for African countries to decrease the volume of plastic entering the environment, and to clean up and recycle – for their economic and health benefit – plastics already in the environment.
As a focused opportunity, the conference provides an accelerated mechanism for Africa to meet UNEA and UNEP goals and, through the action plans, will support countries in meeting the 2030 agenda for sustainable development goals.
“The time for talking is past,” says Ribbink. “We are calling on the people with knowledge and local experience on the ground to help us develop the best practices and practical steps each country could or should take at each link in the plastic value chain to solve the waste problem.
“Africa consumes less plastic per capita than the rest of the world, but a rapidly increasing population, coupled with poor product design, limited collection and recycling infrastructure, and a lack of education on and awareness of complex plastic issues, has resulted in a waste management problem.”
Preparing the guidebook
“We’ve structured the AMWN conference to specifically focus on the interventions that need to happen at every step of the plastic value chain, including production and consumption, collection and sorting, recycling and disposal, the mismanagement of waste, and what roles municipalities are expected to fulfil,” says Ribbink.
“We need to support African initiatives developed by African people. The kinds of solutions that were developed in other parts of the world don’t necessarily apply to Africa.”
He says many previous plans provide high-level solutions but that a clear and practical decision-making framework for the management of plastics, that is easily operationalised for different country contexts and cultures, would be one of the critical outcomes of the conference, with a Guide to the Development of National and Regional Action Plans intended for publication by October this year.
“The framework recognises that all African countries are not the same and that, for example, investing in recycling plants may not make economic sense for some island states or smaller, landlocked countries. Our guidebook spells out the alternatives and actions that need to be taken at every step of the value chain and will help countries craft their approach to best suit their own circumstances.
“Delegates will have the opportunity to examine specific chapters of the draft guidebook and contribute facts, make corrections and contribute proof-of-concept case studies from their region or country.”
The guidebook will be made available to universities, non-governmental organisations, plastics industry stakeholders, and global entities such as the United Nations and its agencies, the World Bank, and the European Union.