Solving the plastic problem: A look at some sustainable initiatives in Africa

At present, plastic is at the centre of focus across nations and is on top of the waste management agenda at the international level.

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April 21 2021
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Many organisations in various parts of Africa are working to identify solutions and partners across the plastics value chain to support in the development of major partnerships, at the local, regional or national level, to reduce plastic waste and plastic pollution, improve recycling capabilities and move toward a circular economy. Several local and regional circular economy and other initiatives aimed at reducing plastic waste have been launched, and two experts share their experiences and efforts underway to promote recycling and establish commercially viable solutions to plastic pollution in Africa.

Plastic recycling and advancing the circular economy for plastics in Africa

Adwoa Coleman, Africa Sustainability & Advocacy Manager, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics and Country Manager, Ghana, discusses plastic recycling and advancing the circular economy for plastics in Africa:

One of the defining challenges society faces today is the global plastics waste crisis. For a materials science company like Dow, we have an active role to play in bringing solutions to this problem. Plastics have an important role in our everyday lives. Whether it’s reducing food waste through sustainable food packaging, protecting goods in storage and distribution, or maintaining a sterile environment for medical equipment – something which has been critical in the ongoing fight against Covid-19. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop focusing on tackling plastic waste.

We strongly believe that plastic is too valuable a resource to be thrown away or lost to landfill. That is why we are working to advance a circular economy for plastics – where plastic is designed and produced with sustainability in mind from the outset and then collected and used as a new resource post-use, so its long-term value can be realised. This is a key focus for the work we are doing in Africa.

Designing for recyclability

We are working hard to design products that are sustainable and recyclable; helping to ensure that they are recycled after use; and then enabling new packaging and applications to be made using recycled content. In fact, we’ve committed to ensure that all of our products sold into packaging applications are reusable or recyclable by 2035.

We do this by working collaboratively with brand owners to design new packaging solutions that are both functional and easier to recycle. In Africa, for example, we work with Mama Silage in Kenya, which creates feed bags that help dairy farmers store feed for up to a year, which is necessary due to droughts. We have helped design bags for recyclability – not only does our design allow oxygen in, resulting in a better quality feed, but the bags can be used several times before needing to be replaced, meaning less plastic is left in the environment. Moreover, working with a recycling partner, farmers can drop off their used bags for free and these are turned into handles and fibres for paint and shoe brushes.

Key collaborations to encourage better, sustainable waste management

One of the biggest challenges standing in our way of achieving full circularity for plastics in Africa is inconsistencies in existing waste management infrastructure. Though this is not our area of expertise, we have taken a leadership role to convene the entire value chain and collaborate with key organisations already supporting local waste management infrastructure, to ensure we can make significant strides in addressing plastic waste in Africa.

In December 2020, we announced the extension of our collaboration with recycling company Mr. Green Africa in Kenya, which has enabled us to drive positive change in local communities where a lack of infrastructure has led to plastic waste ending up in rivers and informal dumps. The project has also established a market for flexible plastic packaging which has created an additional source of income for workers in the informal waste sector. The project leveraged existing buy-back centres that allow waste pickers to bring rigid and flexible plastic waste in for payment, and then enabling this waste to be processed in recycling centres. The second phase of the partnership will also see us collaborate with a brand partner, enabling the use of the recyclable flexible packaging in a new packaging application and the unrecyclable portions in innovative end-uses.

It is estimated that approximately 180 MT of flexible plastic waste is now processed through Dow and Mr. Green Africa’s waste stream every two months in Kenya. In Nigeria, we have a similar initiative called Project ReflexNG - a water sachet recycling programme which we launched last year. Approximately 19% of the population doesn’t have a clean drinking water supply and relies on single-use plastic sachets for their everyday needs. These lightweight plastic sachets which Dow helps make are essential, but recycling them is challenging. So, Dow launched Project ReflexNG in partnership with Omnik, Incentive based collection partners and the Lagos Business School Sustainability Centre to recycle over 300 million sachets, which would otherwise end up in the environment or landfill, into new applications.

To date, we provided an additional source of income for the 8,000+ app subscribers and over 200 waste pickers and are working towards our pilot goal of 600 MT of plastic waste. We also collaborate with Government, think tanks and academia to help nurture African talent in the sustainable waste management sector. Through our partnership with the YALI Regional Leadership Centre West Africa, for example, Dow created a circular economy module in Kenya to bolster local expertise.

In March 2021, we launched an exciting new design challenge - DOW/YALI Accra RLC Design Challenge on Sustainable Waste Management, inviting YALI alumni from across Africa to learn, innovate and collaborate on the next generation of sustainable waste management. The winning group will receive a grant to implement their idea, as well as mentorship from industry leaders. These initiatives form part of a wider programme to help shift consumer behaviour and build awareness of the value of plastic by encouraging effective recycling, and we’re incredibly proud of this work.

Achieving full circularity

In order to ensure no plastic waste ends up in the environment, however, we need more certainty on waste management policies coming from national government to plug the gap in existing infrastructure. We can’t solve the waste challenge on our own. We must work as a collective with each part of the value chain if we are to achieve full circularity for plastics.

Operation Clean Spot

Lesley Bloy, Project Manager, Operation Clean Spot, a new project of Sustainable Seas Trust, also highlighting the major challenges involved in planning a project to deal with an issue of great magnitude:

There is nothing quite like fresh ocean air: the smell of the sea, the salty feeling on one’s lips, the rhythmic lull of the waves crashing and the bliss of feeling the sun gently baking. There is something inherently calming about the sea, something that soothes the soul. That is, until one notices the plastic fork that just stuck into your foot, or the cigarette butts that aren’t quite the same tone as the beach sand, or the plastic straw and the flashing image of that poor turtle! And suddenly, all one can see is the litter, the stench of plastic everywhere.

It is commonly cited that 80% of marine plastics have land-based sources (though this number is likely to vary significantly depending on your sample area), and it is widely accepted that trying to manage this waste at sea, once it has entered the marine environment, is infinitely more difficult than trying to manage it at source. With all this in mind, a small nonprofit organisation, Sustainable Seas Trust, in sunny South Africa decided to launch a pilot project, Operation Clean Spot, in Nelson Mandela Bay. The aim of the project is to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment by 90% and to take Nelson Mandela Bay Towards Zero Plastics to the Seas.

The project team realises that the magnitude of the waste problem and plastic challenge is way beyond the scope of any one organisation, or any one stakeholder. Therefore, this start-up project hopes to engage stakeholders from all spheres: government, businesses, community groups, schools, individuals and more, to take ownership of the areas where they eat, sleep and play, and to clean up any litter in these surrounds and dispose of it responsibly (recycling where possible).

Spot adopters will be required to upload the co-ordinates of their spot to the Operation Clean Spot mapping platform where others can monitor what areas have been adopted, who they have been adopted by and the difference clean-ups are making by using photographs. Furthermore, the project will make use of educational workshops to help share knowledge on the importance and value of a clean and healthy environment, encapsulate the economic benefits that exist when one harnesses the circular economy, use research to monitor the change in litter loads and behaviour over time and continually communicate all the success stories and achievements of the project.

Key challenges

This project is no small undertaking and there have been a number of challenges along the way while planning this project. The first, and most noticeably, was the set back that the Covid pandemic brought with it (not to mention the increased use of single-use items and resultant increase in waste generation). The pandemic and strict governmental lockdown meant that for a long while public gatherings (including workshops and clean-ups) were not allowed. While we have seen this ease, many people are more reluctant now than ever before to get involved in clean-ups for fear of interacting with “infected” materials.

Another notable challenge is that of creating a hype about a project where the most tangible incentive is a clean environment (while other, less obvious incentives follow – for example, improved well-being, increased tourism, etc.). This is where we find educational workshops play a particularly important role, as we aim to increase awareness about the importance of a clean and healthy environment, but also to share knowledge on recycling practices and the value of material deemed to be “waste”.

The last challenge to be touched on here is that, given that there are many role-players within the waste realm in South Africa, it is of utmost importance that this project is seen to be acting in conjunction with the municipality, as well as existing programmes (buy-back centres, swop shops and the like), projects, businesses (formal and informal) and more, rather than in competition with. The challenge of better managing waste is vast and requires this collaborative effort, and therefore different role-players must be seen to be acting in unison.

Moving ahead

While this project is only just in its starting phase, we hope to see it soaring soon. We know that there is no better time than the present to make a difference, to choose wisely, consume less, and to act with purpose. This project, in one small, coastal city, right at the bottom of the African continent, hopes to achieve what is deemed to be impossible, to once again smell the sea, experience the salty feeling on one’s lips, listen to the rhythmic lull of the waves crashing, to feel the sun gently baking and to look around and see: a thriving coastal community living alongside flourishing ecosystems, swooping gulls, sandy dunes, rocky shores, and nature just showing off her pure, unspoilt beauty.


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