Plastic mismanagement in Africa! – The Point

A large part of this waste ends up legally or illegally in Africa. This article uses the available data on plastic waste to shed light on the situation in Africa. Particular attention is paid to imports of plastics and the recycling sector, as well as ways to combat improper dumping and to prevent/reduce marine pollution (microplastics).

The roles and responsibilities of actors and institutions in Africa will be discussed. It is urgent for the international community, in cooperation with the local plastic/textile industries, to establish an effective and well-structured collection system for plastic and textile waste. This will help maximize the collection rate and minimize landfills through recycling. It is also necessary to encourage both the plastic and textile industries to opt for product designs that use easily recyclable materials (eco-design), and this option is crucial.

Africa hardly creates any of its plastics and uses them sparingly for essentials, e.g., storing water. But, Africa has become a dumping ground for the Northern Hemisphere’s (i.e., Europe and the USA) plastic waste in the form of so-called “recycled” clothing and plastic feedstock.

Global plastic production, estimated at 390.7 million tonnes in 2021, has increased rapidly in recent decades and will reach 1800 million tonnes by 2050. Landfill disposal is also increasing, leading to the widespread dispersal of plastic parts into marine environments.The life cycle of plastics is estimated to be several hundreds of years. Since 2015, it has been reported that 12% of plastic waste has been incinerated, with 79% ending up in landfill or leaking into the environment. Single-use plastic packaging is the largest segment of plastics produced worldwide.

After Asia, the African continent is the place where the mismanagement of plastic waste is most widespread and visible. From data resulting from more than 10 years of research, 33 African countries imported about 126 million tonnes (Mt) of polymers in primary form and 46 Mt of plastic products between 1990 and 2017, which means all these countries imported around 172 million tonnes of plastic materials and polymers during this period, with an estimated value of USD 285 billion.

The import of unprocessed and/or processed plastics, finished products, or packaging made of plastics as well as plastic waste is constantly increasing. Adding to local production, mostly of single-use plastic packaging, the huge import of second-hand clothes (SHCs) with short lifespans in many African countries makes the situation worse. A sustainable solution must be found to this environmental problem.

Several sources and databases such as International Scientific Publications, reports from organizations, web pages, and policy documents were consulted to assess relevant information for this work. Over 300 articles were reviewed, using keywords such as “plastic production in Africa”, “Africa plastic import”, “second-hand clothes trade”, “second-hand clothes waste in Africa”, “plastic waste management in Africa”, “plastic recycling in Africa”, “plastic plants in the world”, “micro-fibres in African wastewater”, “microplastic in African aquatic environment”, etc.

A Guest Editorial