Plastic pollution is a western problem that needs African solutions

The problem with plastic is it’s pretty great. It’s cheap, lightweight, strong, and malleable. It keeps food fresh, medical supplies sterile and is an integral component of accessible and cheap hygiene products.

In areas of Africa where access to clean drinking water can be unreliable, single-use plastic bottles offer one of the only viable ways of delivering a safe option. With the demand of Africa’s rapidly growing population making water a highly lucrative commodity, it is now the fastest-selling beverage ahead of soft drinks, coffee, and beer. As such, African entrepreneurs and global brands are making significant sums from commercially packaging water.

But, it can take more than 450 years for a single plastic bottle to break down. The issue of dealing with this excess waste is becoming a serious problem for both the environment and human health. As plastic slowly decomposes, micro-plastic remnants too often enter the food chain, particularly through the marine system. Secondary ingestion of these micro-plastics’ toxins by fish and animals can accumulate to dangerous levels when later consumed by people. In the long-term this can lead to severe illness and even the risk of chromosome alteration, causing infertility and cancer. [1]

Multiply this by the 17 million tonnes of plastic waste generated across Sub-Saharan Africa every year, it is no wonder that much of the debris ends up in the region’s lakes, waterways, and shorelines. Shockingly, only 12% of end-of-life plastics are currently being recycled.[2] Whilst the development of waste management systems to address this is crucial, it only forms part of the answer to the problem of plastic pollution.

COP26 is shining a spotlight on the interconnectedness of climate, resources and consumption – healthy ecosystems are crucial to the maintenance of a healthy climate. It is not only CO2 emissions resulting in climate change, but the degradation of our natural environments that do so much to help regulate the climate on our behalf.

African innovators are working to tackle the issue at its root to reduce, or better yet, to eliminate the need for plastic packaging in the first place. Drawing on their knowledge of local priorities, communities, conditions, and end-users, they are in the best position to cater to the needs of their consumers and address plastic pollution head on.

Previous attempts to import Western eco-friendly initiatives have often failed to gain traction in Africa. This is particularly true in some remote communities. It is easy to see why individuals preoccupied by some of life’s bigger challenges haven’t jumped on the bandwagon of products like metal straws, reusable coffee cups, or biodegradable glitter. It is up to homegrown solutions designed by African innovators with African users in mind to ensure sustained success of plastic alternatives in the long-run.

There are already impressive success stories on this front. ‘PadUp’ focuses on the education, advocacy, and supply of reusable sanitary pads in rural and low-income communities across Nigeria. A fantastic initiative working towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to supply women with sanitary products, whilst also reducing the number of plastic-lined pads that will end up in landfill. Equally, ‘I-Drop Waterpod’ has developed a self-service water refill system that delivers safe and affordable drinking water in grocery stores across South Africa eliminating the need for those customers to rely on single-use plastic bottles.

Other low- and middle-income countries also offer a source of inspiration in their efforts to stave off the avalanche of plastic waste. In the digital sphere, Indonesian-owned, ‘Kecipir’, is an e-commerce platform that aims to reduce the need for plastic in the supply chain. The site offers fresh and organic produce from local farmers that can be delivered to 70 locations in Jakarta via electric tricycle. A convenient way for shoppers to reduce their plastic consumption, carbon footprint, and with the bonus of bulk prices.

While grassroots projects in Africa and beyond offer signs of promise, to make a lasting and meaningful impact, they need to be supported to scale. It’s this opportunity that inspired Nesta Challenges and the Government of Canada to establish the Afri-Plastics Challenge – a CA$14.5 million fund rewarding innovators working on solutions to plastic pollution.

Such an approach nurtures self-reliance and places African innovation at the heart of the battle against plastic pollution. Amplifying the efforts of Sub-Saharan African entrepreneurs will make a greater difference to the lives, livelihoods, and environment across the region than biodegradable glitter ever will.

Facing up to the curse of this once treasured commodity is an urgent global matter. African entrepreneurs and innovators are already making great strides in tackling the volume of plastic packaging, and in turn, plastic pollution. With the support to scale and invest in their solutions, it won’t be long until they are leading the world in the solutions to plastic waste that we all need.

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