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Plastic: can Africa avoid making the West’s mistakes?

Plastic: can Africa avoid making the West’s mistakes?

A Tortoise ThinkIn in partnership with

The focus for this ThinkIn was to consider whether African consumers could benefit from plastics while shielding themselves and the environment from the damaging side-effects.

Date: Wednesday 9 November 2022

Host: Jeevan Vasagar, Climate Editor, Tortoise Media

The contributors for this ThinkIn were: Abe Lim, founder and CEO, Purpose Plastics, Joshua Amponsem, executive director, Green Africa Youth Organisation, Nishara Siebani, sustainability and advocacy manager, Africa, Dow, Professor Steve Fletcher, director, Global Plastics Policy Centre. There was also input from the audience in Sharm El-Sheikh and from the online-audience in the Zoom chat.

Watch again here.

Select points from the chat:

“I often wonder why some fruit is wrapped in plastic, some in netting, some in paper bags… especially fruit which has a naturally protective layer (such as tangerines and bananas).” Maddy Diment

“For countries like Nigeria a major public awareness campaign is needed for the average person to see/understand the need to recycle/dispose of waste properly. They have a sanitation day once a month but it needs to be on the government’s list of priorities to educate people and make it easy.”Tomini Babs

“Recycling should be costed in plastic production.”Mark Cook

What is plastic for? 

Plastic is used across almost every sector; from packaging, construction, consumer products and transportation to electronics.

It serves a vital function in food and water storage: A cucumber unwrapped lasts 5 days, whereas one wrapped in plastic lasts 14 days. Water can be transported and stored in plastic bottles and bags to avoid contamination in areas lacking adequate plumbing infrastructure. 

Plastic waste is a huge challenge, but so is food waste, and plastic-wrapped food lasts longer and is easier to transport. This is particularly important in developing countries where farmers and food distributors often lack access to a continuous chain of refrigeration. 

What’s the problem?

Plastic waste damages the natural environment and can cause harm to plants and animals. This damage is acute in urban areas where plastic is often burned for energy production; the associated air pollution carries severe respiratory health implications for people.

The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, with most of it ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment, according to the OECD.

By the numbers: 

  • 15% share of global emissions related to plastic production, use and disposal allowed under a 1.5C warming scenario 
  • 800 marine and coastal species currently affected by pollution through ingestion and entanglement 
  • 11 million tonnes of plastic waste that flow annually into oceans

What’s the solution? 

First and most importantly: reduce the amount of plastics entering the economy in the first place. Can be done by banning certain plastics, such as ones that can’t be recycled, are toxic, can’t be collected or separated. Pricing in the downstream costs of plastics is also vital in reducing plastic use; if the price of plastic reflected its true impact, it would be less affordable for consumers and companies would reduce its use. (Note: traditional methods of preservation, such as kimchi in Korea, can extend the shelf life of food without the use of plastic.)

Second, create an internationally coherent policy for plastic manufacturing. At present if one country introduces more stringent rules, the market shifts elsewhere. Challenges arise from mismatched policies in different countries and we need an internationally coherent approach to dealing with plastics. Bans have a place in the policy toolbox but the priority is a reduction in the quantity of plastics entering the economy. 

Changes to production practices can also be beneficial. Harmful components in plastic manufacturing are often used for cosmetic reasons, such as making the plastic look glossier or more transparent. By excluding these components and thus creating less attractive plastics, production can have a lighter environmental footprint; for plastics “grey is the new green”.

Finally, once plastic production has been limited, the focus can turn to ensuring existing plastics can be recycled and reused. Creating a circular economy around plastics can reduce waste, and demand for new plastics. This requires government intervention to encourage the creation of hard and reusable plastics. At the moment, plastics producers are incentivized to create single-use plastics, as the associated consistent demand is more profitable. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes play an important role; they require companies that produce plastics to pay for collection, sorting and recycling.

Waste collection efforts can also embrace the existing collection infrastructure in Africa. Many African cities rely on an informal network of waste-pickers to keep neighbourhoods clean. At present these workers operate without support or recognition from local governments. If municipalities were to officially recognise them and provide them with support, such as health insurance, it could bolster recycling efforts and make waste-picking a more secure occupation.