waste islands

Can Africa play key role to deter spreading plastic pollution?

By Damien Glez

Posted on June 29, 2023 13:00

Dubbed the seventh continent, plastic-polluted islands, mostly covered with polymer waste, are increasing in the heart of oceans.

Annual production of polymer, a petroleum-derived material, has more than doubled in 20 years, reaching 460mt. As with other environmental issues, the political and scientific worlds are struggling to develop solutions.

Plastic production could triple by 2060, representing nearly 2 billion tonnes of annual greenhouse gases, and microplastics are beginning to be detected in human blood, breast milk or placentas.

As part of the UN Environment Assembly, and after a first round of negotiations in Uruguay at the end of 2022, France hosted a second round from 29 May to 2 June 2023. The aim of this 175-country meeting was a possible global treaty to combat plastic pollution, with legally binding provisions.

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Often seen as the ultimate, most appeasing repository of the world’s waste, the African continent is home to leading countries in the fight against unwanted plastic materials.

Kenya is known for its commitment on this front. Rwanda also leads alongside Norway the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution by 2040, bringing together about 50 countries. For 14 years, Kigali has banned plastic bags and all packaging deemed ‘unnecessary’.

The most timid in this ongoing fight are nations with developed petrochemical industries, such as members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), China, and the US.

The US, the world’s largest economy, focuses on better waste management rather than reducing the use of plastic. Yet speeches aside, only 9% of waste is actually recycled, with 22% merely discarded in the environment.

Broadly focused on North-South relations, the debates explore several avenues for policy change and market adjustments:

  • Promoting reuse options in a reuse, recycling, redirection and diversification (RRR+D) cycle,
  • prioritising management of single-use and short-lived products,
  • promoting deposit systems,
  • abolishing fossil fuel subsidies,
  • implementing more recycling-friendly design directives,
  • tax incentives,
  • holding manufacturers accountable, 
  • and of course, using alternative materials.

A well-managed plan to combat plastic waste should serve economic development by achieving various economies and creating many jobs.

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