Despite Global Efforts, Plastic Pollution Crisis in Africa Worsens

Every year, humanity produces a staggering 430 million tonnes of plastic, two-thirds of which quickly becomes waste. This relentless tide of plastic is polluting our land, sea, and air, and it’s increasingly finding its way into our food chain. By 2060, experts estimate that global plastic production will surpass a staggering billion tonnes, further exacerbating this growing crisis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) paints a grim picture, revealing that less than 10% of the world’s annual plastic production is recycled. The situation is particularly alarming in Africa, where despite producing only 5% and consuming only 4% of the world’s plastic, the continent is experiencing a surge in single-use plastic consumption, leading to heightened pollution and health concerns.

In a beacon of hope, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) took a bold step in March 2022, launching a two-year initiative to forge a global agreement to halt plastic pollution.

Since then, an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee has convened twice, steadily advancing this crucial objective. In September 2023, UNEP unveiled a “zero draft” of a potential agreement, a preliminary step towards a comprehensive treaty that outlines a framework to address the plastic crisis.

This draft proposes a holistic approach, encompassing the entire plastic lifecycle, from reducing production to eliminating the use of the most hazardous plastics. It also aims to halt the export and recycling of plastics containing harmful chemicals – a promising first step towards a meaningful treaty.

In a critical step towards tackling the plastic pollution crisis, government delegations gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, for the third round of UN talks on a plastic pollution treaty. Representatives from 161 countries participated in these negotiations, demonstrating the global recognition of the urgency of this issue.

Led by UNEP, the treaty process seeks to address the problem in its entirety, considering every stage of the plastic lifecycle, including production, design, and disposal.

The third round of UN negotiations concluded with over 500 proposals submitted, a testament to the global commitment to combating plastic pollution. Negotiators have until the end of 2024 to finalize a deal, which will address the estimated 400 million tons of plastic waste produced annually.

While the plastics industry and oil and petrochemical exporters favour promoting recycling and reuse, environmental groups and some governments advocate for reducing production. Two more rounds of talks are scheduled for next year, with a possible additional session to analyze the plastic pollution crisis in more detail.

Regional Plastics Policy Advisor for Africa at the non-governmental World Wildlife Fund (WWF) South Africa, Zaynab Sadan, spoke about the need for a comprehensive global treaty to address plastic pollution’s life cycle. She called for bans, improved product design, and support measures while acknowledging challenges in negotiations and implementation, particularly in developing countries.

Could you tell me more about yourself and your professional journey?

I completed a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town. My research focused on the socio-economic barriers to metals recycling from e-waste in South Africa. This research began my journey in working towards sustainable production and consumption, circularity, waste prevention, and equity in material value chains in developing country markets.

What motivates you to come to work every day, and what aspects of your work are you most passionate about?

A key motivating factor for me is that “nature knows no waste”, and we have much to learn from nature in designing our material systems. To do this, we have to find ways to reconnect to and learn from nature.

I am currently engaging with and supporting governments and civil society organisations in Africa in preparing for negotiations of a global treaty to end plastic pollution through policy development, research, and advocacy. I also enjoy facilitation and skills-building in innovation and people-centered design methodologies.

Plastic pollution is a major environmental problem in South Africa. How severe is plastic pollution in South Africa, and how does it compare to other African countries?

South Africa’s current plastics economy is almost entirely based on the linear “take-make-waste” approach. Almost half the goods consumed are designed for a short lifespan, and landfilling or open dumping are the primary waste treatment methods. In 2021, South Africa was ranked 11 on the global list of plastic polluters of coastal countries.

South Africa has an established plastic value chain and high per capita plastic consumption (32–41 kg compared to the global average of 29 kg). Packaging accounts for 52% of plastic use in South Africa, followed by the construction and agricultural sectors. Each year, 488 kilotonnes (kt) of plastic pollutes the environment.

It contributes to air pollution through open burning (275 kt), land pollution (145 kt), and aquatic (freshwater and marine) pollution (68 kt). Plastic pollution also has a direct and indirect economic impact on South African industries such as fishing, shipping, and tourism. It affects ecosystems and ecosystem services, which in turn has knock-on economic impacts.

As a continent, Africa produces 5% and consumes 4% of global plastic volumes, to put that in perspective, the total global plastic production in 2020 was over 400 million tonnes. While these production and consumption figures in Africa are small compared to the rest of the world, the increase in imports of manufactured plastic products and packaging into African countries is concerning.

The countries with the largest economies in Africa, namely, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa, were also found to be the highest producers and importers of plastic polymers and products over the period of 2009-2015.

If plastic is such a big problem, why isn’t plastic consumption being reduced by law?

Plastic is not inherently bad; it is a man-made material that contributes multiple benefits to society. However, the current linear economic model of “take-make-waste” is the root cause of plastic pollution. The exponential rate and scale at which plastic is currently produced, and the way products and packaging are designed for disposal after being used once, combined with how plastic items are managed after use, are highly unsustainable and damaging to both human health and nature.

There are certain countries like Kenya, Rwanda, and others, which courageously banned certain single-use plastics, and South Africa, which in 2019 promulgated the extended producer responsibility regulations on plastic and paper packaging. However, the existing policy and legal frameworks are fragmented and ineffective due to the transboundary nature of the plastics value chain and the policy gaps at the global, regional, and national levels.

This is the very reason why the majority of countries unanimously called for and adopted a UN resolution to end plastic pollution through a comprehensive approach to address the full life cycle of plastics. The future treaty to end plastic pollution provides an opportunity to curb plastic production, eliminate the most harmful categories of plastics and associated chemicals, and transition to a non-toxic circular economy for plastics.

Plastic pollution is a significant issue in many African countries, posing threats to human health, biodiversity, and ecosystem functioning. How can African countries improve waste management practices and promote sustainable alternatives to reduce plastic pollution and protect public health?

To begin, we need to embrace a full life cycle approach to addressing plastic pollution, from polymer production, product and system design, and manufacturing, reuse, recycling, and waste management.

This means that a large amount of plastic pollution can be prevented at the first stages of the plastics lifecycle by reducing the unsustainable levels of polymer production by eliminating the most harmful and problematic plastic categories, including chemicals of concern and high-risk products such as avoidable single-use plastics, abandoned and lost fishing gear and intentionally added microplastics.

These three categories form the biggest volumes of what is found in nature. In addition, there is a need to shift towards reuse systems for plastic categories including packaging, and ensure producer accountability through extended producer responsibility schemes and transparency, traceability, and monitoring.

International negotiations on a global plastic pollution treaty kicked off in Nairobi, with nations grappling over the scope and substance of the pact. What are the key issues that need to be addressed in the negotiations for a global treaty to combat plastic pollution, and what specific measures do you think should be included in the pact to achieve these goals?

An ambitious and equitable global plastic treaty will include effective measures along the full life cycle of plastics. The treaty must accelerate a just transition and be built on the voices of the communities that are most affected by plastic pollution.

In short, the treaty must establish common, binding, and specific global rules, including:

Global bans, phaseouts, and phase-downs of problematic and avoidable plastic products and uses, and of plastic polymers and chemicals of concern. Global requirements for product design and systems, securing a safe and non-toxic circular economy, prioritizing reuse, improving recycling, and securing the environmentally sound management of plastic waste.

Strong implementation support measures, including sufficient financial support and alignment of public and private financial flows for implementation in low-income countries.

What are the potential benefits and challenges of a legally binding UN treaty on plastic pollution?

Global plastic pollution could triple by 2040 unless we take immediate action. Voluntary measures and country-driven efforts have proven ineffective in stopping plastic from polluting and poisoning our planet. Over the past five years, the number of national and voluntary actions to tackle the problem has increased by 60%, yet plastic pollution has simultaneously continued to increase by 50%.

The unique potential of a global treaty is to hold all countries to a high common standard of action. This will create a harmonised system of what should not be accepted, and provide support for countries in this transition. Other successful environmental agreements demonstrate the power of moving beyond fragmented national plans.

For example, through global bans, the Montreal Protocol has phased out more than 99% of ozone-depleting substances since its establishment, setting the ozone layer on a gradual path to recovery.

Challenges may rear their heads in the negotiation process, as happened at the second Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, where a small but powerful block of countries with established petrochemical industries stalled negotiations for days on procedural and voting issues. We expressed concern that an escalation of such tactics at INC-3 would run out the clock on negotiating more important issues.

At the midpoint of the negotiations, it would be crucial for countries to maintain the ambition set out in the UN resolution in March 2022, which set out the mandate for the negotiations. It is concerning that some countries are already showing signs of putting national economic interests ahead of addressing the hidden costs of plastic pollution on human health and the environment.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities associated with implementing a circular economy for plastics in developing countries?

One of the major concerns or challenges for developing countries to transition to a non-toxic circular economy is the impact on jobs and the economy. The current plastics value chain provides several formal and informal jobs at various stages, including polymer production, plastic manufacturing, trade, retail, and waste management. However, accurate and up-to-date data on the number and types of jobs in the plastics value chain in African countries is scarce.

In South Africa, for example, the total number of formal jobs provided by plastics manufacturers was estimated at 60,000 in 2018. This high number can be attributed to the maturity of the plastics value chain in South Africa. As of 2019, 7892 formal jobs were provided in the plastics recycling sector in South Africa. This is not the case in other African countries, particularly those without production and manufacturing infrastructure.

Informal waste collectors – also known as waste pickers or waste reclaimers – account for many more self-created livelihoods in the waste sector. They earn their livelihoods from collecting, sorting, and aggregating waste found in streets and landfills or sourced directly from households. They then sell recyclable waste, including plastic items, to buyback centres or formal recyclers.

In South Africa, some researchers estimate that there are up to 215,000 waste reclaimers. In Nigeria, the formal and informal waste sectors are estimated to provide over 100,000 jobs. In Morocco, the official estimate is between 7,000 and 10,000 informal waste collectors, but other estimates indicate there may be as many as 34,000.

There is an argument that decreasing plastic production and consumption may result in job losses, which is a particular concern in African countries with high unemployment rates.

However, a study in South Africa on the socioeconomic impacts of the bans and phasing out of 10 identified “high-risk” plastic products used in South Africa.

The ban and the phase-out scenarios demonstrate positive economic outcomes with notable real gross domestic product (GDP) and employment expansion compared to the baseline business-as-usual scenario, in a country where the wider plastic manufacturing and conversion sector contributes 2% to the GDP. The ban scenario for the four items displays a sharp boost to the economy. The phase-out approach for the six items shows a shift towards higher-skilled, better-paying jobs.

Furthermore, the transition to an inclusive and non-toxic circular economy should also include plans for the integration of the informal waste reclaimers to ensure they are recognised, compensated, and provided support to ensure safe and healthy working conditions.

What is the WWF’s plan to address plastic pollution?

WWF works with stakeholders in government, civil society, academia, and across the plastics value chain in South Africa, the rest of Africa, and globally to ensure that plastic is produced and used in a sustainable manner to secure both environmental and human well-being and address plastic pollution.

WWF has an initiative called No Plastic in Nature, which works across the life cycle of plastic to reduce the amount of new plastic produced, increase the reuse of plastic already in circulation, and eliminate the leakage of plastic into nature.

Our initiative is built on three core pillars:

Policy and global governance: WWF supports the development of an equitable and effective global legally binding treaty on plastic pollution that will set global measurable targets that governments, businesses, and consumers can contribute to achieve. In addition, WWF works with governments in developing frameworks for extended producer responsibility schemes at a national level.

Business engagement: WWF engages with businesses to shift towards non-toxic circularity, an example of this is through supporting various national and regional Plastic Pacts together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and other partners.

Plastic smart cities: WWF works with stakeholders at a city level including municipalities, civil society organisations, local businesses, informal waste pickers, and others to support environmentally sound waste management and circularity initiatives.

What can individuals do to reduce plastic pollution?

Individuals are already making lifestyle changes, including switching to reusable bottles, bags, coffee cups, and other items. However, reuse is not always accessible, affordable, and readily available. This will only change if the necessary regulatory frameworks are in place and enforced to ensure producer accountability.

Therefore, WWF calls on citizens to add their voices to a global vote spearheaded by WWF to urge their leaders to back the global treaty against plastic pollution. While the majority of governments support an equitable and binding treaty, we need to ensure leaders maintain momentum and do not compromise on our collective ambition.

What is the future of plastic pollution?

Only specific, science-based, and binding global rules can bring us closer to ending the plastic pollution crisis that is constantly accelerating, and that is why we are doing all we can to have this global legally binding treaty in place by 2025.

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