Nature and Biodiversity

4 promising approaches to eliminating plastic pollution in Africa

Boy walks along the beac with plastic bottles: Inclusive and impactful policy measures are needed to address plastic pollution in Africa.

Inclusive and impactful policy measures are needed to address plastic pollution in Africa. Image: Unsplash/Prince Akachi

Bontu Yousuf
Specialist, National Plastic Action Partnership, World Economic Forum
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  • The African continent faces a number of challenges to solving its plastic pollution problem despite being one of the lowest ranked in terms of global primary plastic production.
  • The continent is vulnerable to the adverse effects of plastic pollution and will need to take several measures to ensure a regenerative and sustainable plastic pollution free future.
  • The UN Treaty to End Plastic Pollution provides an opportunity to set in place the necessary groundwork to enable solutions required to end plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is a global crisis, and Africa is no exception. In recent years, the continent has experienced a significant surge in municipal plastic waste, partly due to rapid urbanization and population growth. In tow, the consumption and disposal of plastic products in Africa is estimated to grow exponentially – demand for plastic consumption potentially rising higher than in North America or Europe by 2035. If trends remain the same, the region is projected to end up with 116 million tonnes of plastic waste annually by 2060, six times more than the 18 million tonnes of waste produced in 2019.

From the adverse health effects on communities to the plastic leakages in water and marine systems, the negative impacts of plastic pollution are far-reaching. As threats loom, the world is at a pivotal moment to change how we limit plastic use through the upcoming UN Treaty to End Plastic Pollution.

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Integrating holistic policy and regulatory frameworks

There are several barriers to addressing plastic pollution in Africa, including the development and execution of inclusive and impactful policy measures to limit it across the plastic lifecycle.

Integrating regulatory frameworks can include:

  • Bans or restrictions.
  • Extended producer responsibility schemes.
  • Investing in infrastructure for effective plastic waste management.

Rwanda’s plastic bag ban in 2008 is exemplary and banned the production, importation, sale and use of polyethene, leading the groundwork for the country’s transition of phasing out single-use plastics and enabling the adoption of sustainable alternatives.

For wide adoption of these measures, they should be tailored to local contexts and include provisions for alternatives and exemptions. Furthermore, enforcement mechanisms must also be in place to ensure widespread compliance.

In addition to these restrictive measures, extended producer responsibility schemes have been an effective method to encourage manufacturers and producers across the plastics supply chain to take responsibility for the end-of-life management of plastic. As key decision makers continue to explore how to limit volumes of plastic within the value chain, governments should work alongside the private sector to establish schemes that ensure producers and manufacturers are designing products with the full product life cycle in mind (from raw material extraction to consumption and disposal).

South Africa has the most progressive policy on extended producer responsibility on the continent and has set an example through its National Environmental Waste Act, which took effect in 2021. This legislation makes extended producer responsibility mandatory for all producers and importers of packaging, which also mandates a fee per ton produced or distributed.

In addition, the government has invested in collection infrastructure to increase plastic recovery rates. These actions have been well received by the plastics industry, paving the way for further public-private sector collaboration to accelerate the circularity of plastics.

Promoting public awareness and behavioral changes

As African countries grow and urbanize, the need for increased community awareness of negative consumption behaviours becomes even more crucial in supporting municipal waste systems to manage volumes adequately. Increased awareness and education are essential for changing consumption behaviour at individual and community levels. By investing in educational programmes encouraging responsible plastic consumption and disposal practices through informative campaigns, countries can realize the benefits of responsible plastic use.

Involving the end-users can also ensure the feasibility of national policy measures. Ghana has shown leadership here by being the first country to bridge the data gap by combining official statistics and citizen science to address marine plastic pollution. These efforts have been supported by the Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership's Behaviour, Education and Community Engagement Task Force.

As one of the countries most vulnerable to the harmful effects of marine litter, Ghana has set eradicating plastic and marine pollution as a top priority, dedicating efforts to mitigate this issue. Through their collaborative efforts, they became the first country to officially report on the indicator attached to sustainable development goal (SDG) 14 on life below water – 14.1.1b: plastic debris data – as part of their 2022 Voluntary National Review for the SDGs.

Ghana has also implemented these findings in their National Plastics Management Policy. In addition to informing policy, the project has helped all stakeholders understand the value of reporting for the SDGs.

By fostering an environment that enables reuse models to mature and scale, eliminating plastic pollution in Africa would become a reality.

Bontu Yousuf, Specialist National Platforms and Circular Economy, World Economic Forum

Enabling market development of reuse models

Developing market incentives for the transition towards a circular plastics economy in Africa is essential to encourage businesses and consumers to adopt regenerative and sustainable business models. It would not only limit volumes of plastic throughout the value chain but also ignite the profitability of an emerging market. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, replacing 20% of single-use plastic packaging globally with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth approximately $10 billion.

Businesses and investors are responding to this need and increasing investment into reuse models – in the United States, Canada and Europe, roughly $1 billion was raised to fund reuse systems.

In emerging markets, there is a greater need for early and growth-stage investments to support the pilot and scale of innovative solutions led by local entrepreneurs and innovators. The United Bank for Africa (UBA) recognizes the economic potential of the circular economy and has supported high-potential projects; it has committed $35 million in green finance with the SUNREF (Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and Energy Finance) programme for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Although positive, the intent to invest alone won’t be enough. With market volatility, these circular and reuse models are incredibly vulnerable to resistance from investors. Institutional investors prioritize strong business fundamentals and transparency. To mitigate these barriers, governments play a crucial role in developing policies and incentives for these business models to thrive.

By fostering an environment that enables reuse models to mature and scale, eliminating plastic pollution in Africa would become a reality.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

Fostering international and regional collaboration

In light of the upcoming legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, momentum for global and national plastic action has been rapidly growing. The Global Plastic Action Partnership is tackling plastic pollution through its multi-stakeholder platform.

Our thriving community has garnered increased global and regional recognition for this issue through our national partnerships.

With the upcoming UN Global Plastic Treaty (United Nations Environment Programme resolution 5/14), the world is paying attention to the treaty negotiation process to observe 175 national representatives negotiate the future of plastics. Adopting the treaty will determine the global path to ending plastic pollution. Representatives agreed to establish the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to draft the legally binding agreement by 2024.

In September 2022, the African Ministerial Conference on Environment established the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) on plastic pollution to ensure the continent has a unified position in the INC negotiation process. This coalition of countries, chaired by Ghana, calls for comprehensive national action roadmaps and plans, increased financial investment and extended producer policies as a means of implementation.

In addition to the AGN, several African countries have committed their support for an ambitious plastic treaty through membership of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution. Co-chaired by Norway and Rwanda, this coalition of countries – comprising Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Gabon, Guinea, and Burkina Faso among others – have voiced their support of an ambitious international legally binding instrument grounded in a circular approach to ensure effective interventions along the entire lifecycle of plastics and eradicate plastic pollution by 2040.

With the global anticipation surrounding the forthcoming third session of the INC in Nairobi and the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, African leaders have a window of opportunity to enhance their actions to effectively combat plastic pollution.

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