While the regulatory battle against plastic bags has seen notable successes in Africa, where 34 out of 54 countries have banned their use, these victories should not be the tree that hides the forest. Plastic bags are certainly the most visible form of plastic pollution, but they are far from being the only source. It is also important to be realistic: plastic use is not about to decrease, nor is its production. Indeed, the production of plastic could triple by 2050, at a time when their harmful effects on health and the environment are the subject of increased vigilance.
The issue is particularly sensitive in Africa, which is becoming one of the outlets for the rest of the world’s plastic waste, not to mention locally generated waste. The difficulty of recycling and recovering plastic waste that accumulates in open dumps should be a priority for policy makers and industry.
As the UN lays the groundwork for a treaty to address the issue of plastic waste, it is urgent for Africa to find solutions that do not only aim at the total disappearance of plastic packaging but also at developing alternative ways of producing 100% biodegradable or recyclable plastics, as well as collection and recycling services.
Let’s recall that plastic does not only have negative effects. For example, we must distinguish between polluting and recyclable plastics… Among the most obvious advantages, plastic packaging has made it possible to considerably increase the shelf life of fresh food. Without adequate packaging, it would not be possible to transport meat, liquids, and many preparations to the cities and the most remote areas of the continent. Plastic is lighter and stronger than glass, and more malleable than metal. It is an excellent insulator, waterproof, and can be shaped into an infinite number of sizes, thicknesses, and shapes. If this material is so ubiquitous today, it is because it has demonstrated benefits that no other material has.
The question is not so much how to get rid of plastics as how to reason about their use, transform their production and management in order to make them recyclable and, as much as possible, find new sources (other than oil…) to produce them.
Already, many initiatives are emerging on the African continent to recover the plastic waste that can be recycled: reuse of waste to make building bricks or public garbage cans, or individual collection of recyclable waste to sell to factories specializing in their transformation.
But these initiatives will not trigger a mass movement on the scale of African national economies if real circuits of production of 100% recyclable plastics, collection and recycling are not put in place. These circuits exist for glass, nothing prevents us from imagining that the plastic value chain could be inspired by them.
As with metals and glass, the recycling of plastic waste has an economic justification, and technical solutions already exist (PET plastics) or are under development (bioplastics based on algae, fungi, or synthesized by bacteria). The success of each of these methods will depend in particular on their ability to be integrated into a wider cycle of reuse: either to produce biogas, or as an agricultural input, or as a recyclable product in the same form.
The turnaround can be made by bringing together researchers, engineers, public decision-makers, industrialists, users, and all those who, today informally, tomorrow perhaps as employees, make a living from the recovery of plastic waste and have therefore developed expertise in their sorting, collection, marketing, and recovery.
The Moringa Fund is working with its portfolio companies on this project, through the Moringa/ATAF project and the consulting firm The Right Packaging*. The avenues of reflection currently being developed focus on controlling the collection of water bottles and their recycling, and the use of high-pressure decontamination processes in tanks rather than in fruit juice packaging – which makes it possible to use materials other than plastic (cardboard, glass, cans). For dried fruit, the aim is to favor bulk sales as well as the use of single-material flexible packaging allowing for recycling. These avenues are being explored in particular by the Moringa portfolio companies in Mali and Benin.
The market for plastic waste treatment holds huge potential profits, even outside the continent’s borders. Plastic production in Europe is already running out of materials to recycle, and a waste reprocessing industry in Africa could find a secondary market to finance its development. Eventually, plastic could become a coveted raw material…
Bringing together environmental, economic and commercial interests with scientific innovation could finally be the happy and unexpected consequence of solutions to the plastic waste issue in Africa.