/ 24 February 2022

Africa needs to beat plastic pollution, says WWF

Nigeria Environment
A woman pushes a sack containing recycled plastic bottles past an area where plastic waste is being used to reclaim a swamp so that the land can be developed for housing in the Mosafejo area of Lagos on February 12, 2019. - Nigeria, which elects a new president on February 16, is Africa's most populous nation and leading oil producer but is dogged by poverty and insecurity. (Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

New findings on plastic pollution in Africa indicate that the problem could be addressed more efficiently if policymakers tackled the entire lifecycle of plastic as opposed to just its end cycle, waste. 

The report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) titled, Plastic Pollution in Africa: Policy Gaps and Opportunities, has been published ahead of a key meeting in Kenya, Nairobi, when the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly conference takes place from 28 February 2022.

Among the items on the agenda is the adoption of a resolution which, if passed, will give the mandate to start negotiations on a global, legally binding treaty on plastics pollution.

It encourages African governments to actively participate and provide African perspectives and priorities in the negotiations.

The report emphasises that the end-of-life focus on waste hinders progress to address the root causes of plastic pollution at the production (stage 1) and usage (stage 2) lifecycle stages of plastics. 

African countries have, over the years, emerged as leaders in single use plastic bans, with 37 countries currently enforcing some type of legislation to deal with the problem. 

“However, the different variations and elements of these bans make coordination and enforcement

of the bans difficult in the region and globally, specifically when it comes to transboundary plastic pollution and international trade,”

the researchers found.

The effective enforcement of these bans differs from country to country, but common constraining issues include illegal trade taking place across porous borders and a lack of enforcement capacity,” the report said. 

South Africa is ranked 11 on the global list of plastic polluters and uses an extended producer responsibility (EPR) approach, which was voluntary until May last year. 

The authors noted that it was widely acknowledged that mandatory extended producer responsibility is more effective than voluntary responsibility because it covers all packaging formats regardless of market value. 

“It will also provide the necessary financial and/or operational capacity to the inadequate solid-waste management function currently provided by municipalities in South Africa,” they said. 

South Africa has also recognised the role of informal waste pickers in dealing with plastic pollution by developing waste picker integration guidelines. 

“In the slow conversation towards the implementation of South Africa’s EPR regulations, separate engagements are underway between relevant actors on ways to better include the informal waste sector,” the report noted. “Although the informal sector is not fully organised to make a sufficient contribution in these engagements, waste pickers operating under nonprofit organisations and cooperatives are represented at these talks.”

Despite progress, the report  by the WWF found that a number of policy gaps characterise current efforts to eradicate plastic pollution.

Among those are a need for more continental frameworks, regional coordination, lack of African-led research, lack of enforcement of existing regulations and limited resources to realise effective policy. 

It recommends that accountability is recognised throughout the plastics value chain, facilitating public/private sector collaboration, integrating the informal waste sector, setting national targets and the development of integrated regional strategies to boost the continent’s efforts to deal with plastic pollution. 

“We urgently need to find effective ways of keeping African landscapes, seascapes and cities free from the corrosive impacts of plastic pollution,” said Prabhat Upadhyaya, a policy analyst for climate and plastics at WWF South Africa. 

“The best way to do this is by thinking systemically across the full lifecycle of plastic products to address plastic pollution at source and accelerate a shift towards a circular plastics economy in Africa. Securing the mandate to begin negotiations on a globally legally binding agreement would be a strong message supporting this shift at scale.” 

In 2020, total plastic production in Africa reached more than 400 million tonnes. 

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa