The UN’s new task: Save Africa from becoming the world’s

As global plastic waste has increased many times over the past decade, Africa has gradually become the world’s dumping ground for discarded plastic.

To address the growing plastic waste problem, UN members will next week hold a three-day meeting on the earth’s environmental problems.

From Antananarivo to Dakar via Nairobi and Conakry, African cities are scarred by huge landfills where plastic waste is measured in thousands of tonnes. The landfill is foul-smelling and dangerous and emits smoke and toxic particles. They are also a place where poor men, women and children pick through the dirt to find enough to survive.

Blown by the wind or swept downstream in rivers, plastic waste pollutes the sea, forests and fields and threatens wildlife – and eventually humans as well, as microscopic particles enter the food chain.

“The plastic bags are real killers,” said Hama Abdoulaye, a shepherd living near Niamey, the capital of the Sahel state of Niger. “The animals swallow plastic when they graze on the grass and die slowly.”

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which hosts the three-day UN General Assembly that opens in Nairobi on Monday, says plastic pollution in Africa is accelerating, driven in part by poor waste collection and a lack of recycling facilities. The problem poses “a significant threat to the environment and the economies of the continent,” a recent report said.

About 300 million tons of plastic waste – equivalent to the weight of the earth’s human population – is produced each year. But globally, less than 10% is recycled, a figure that is anecdotally much smaller in Africa, although reliable statistics for the continent are rare. “If nothing is done within a few years, Africa will become a garbage can of plastic bags and waste,” said Ousmane Danbadji, head of a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Niger Network for Water and Sanitation.

In 2018, China decided to ban the import of plastic waste, a move that was followed by other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia. This has raised concerns about a side effect – these rich countries will increasingly turn to Africa to get rid of their plastic waste.

Africa is already a long established destination for other hazardous products and materials such as batteries or used electrical and electronic components, especially in Ghana and Nigeria. “There is a great risk of seeing all waste from industrialized countries dumped here in Africa,” said Yves Ikobo, head of a grassroots organization in DR Congo called Planete Verte RDC.

In Nairobi, African countries will seek to reach a common position banning the import of plastic waste to the continent, with a view to talks on an international agreement against plastic pollution. Since the early 2000s, most sub-Saharan African states have gradually enacted legislation banning the production, import, marketing, use and storage of plastic bags and packaging. But the laws are routinely ignored or poorly enforced.

In a letter to Agence France-Presse (AFP), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said it was “completing a draft regulation” on the harmonization of national rules among its 15 members.

However, Member States have “not yet agreed … on a deadline for the import of plastics”, it admitted.

“There is a lack of commitment from many states in Africa,” said John Gakwavu, head of a Rwandan environmental organization. Danbadji, from the Niger Network, agreed.

“We can not do anything about the spread (of plastic waste) because politicians are not really involved in the fight,” he said. But the lack of commitment is not just a matter of weak governance. It is also linked to the economic and social effects of the plastics sector, which is a major employer in several countries.

“I do not think African countries will take exactly the same position,” said Nhlanhla Sibisi of Greenpeace Africa, based in Johannesburg. South Africa is an example. About 65,000 people are employed in the synthetic materials industry in the continent’s largest economy – a big plus in a country where 65% of young people are unemployed – and the sector is a major taxpayer.

South African Environment Minister Barbara Creecy recently warned that all international agreements must take into account “differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities.”

This wording is routinely heard at UN climate conferences when developing countries say they should not be called upon to bear the same burden as the rich. “It will be very difficult for our countries to agree to ban the introduction of waste,” Ikobo said. “It is also, for them, a way of getting financing, of capital. Hence the importance for us to continue to exert pressure so that we do not sacrifice the future of the continent.”

But there are other voices saying that importing plastic waste is acceptable, provided the conditions are met.

Richard Kainika, general secretary of the Association of Kenyan Waste Recyclers, said he had no problems as long as the waste was “well sorted and classified”.

“Recycling supports job creation and also preserves the environment,” he said.

At the same time, grassroots work with the environment – something that has been absent for so long in Africa – is starting to pick up speed.

In some places, citizens are working to pick up plastic on the streets and on the beaches, and some cautious recycling projects have started.

Bright stars include Libreville and Abidjan, where, thanks to a collaboration with UNESCO and a Colombian company, a factory for recycling plastic into bricks opened in 2020 with the aim of building hundreds of schools in the Ivory Coast.

These initiatives will not in themselves solve the much bigger problem of massive and ruthless dumping of plastic. But they sow the seeds of consciousness, which in turn leads to pressure on governments to act.

Could these be the first small steps that will save the continent from drowning in plastic?

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