Cleaning up plastic pollution in Africa – Science Magazine

Plastic waste pollution, aggravated by inefficient waste collection and limited recycling capabilities, is prevalent across Africa. However, the continent also has a growing, youthful population that values improving the quality of life and readily adopts technologies toward this end (1). This makes Africa especially suitable as a testbed to investigate the effectiveness of new technologies for solving environmental problems. In addition to consumers pushing brands to be more environmentally responsible, a business case also exists in Africa that enables brands to invest in technologies that promote a circular economy. As such, a trend for plastic waste remediation efforts in Africa that relies principally on consumer engagement to create a plastics circular economy has emerged (2).

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Limiting Nonbiodegradable Plastics

Over 416 billion plastic bags per month are used globally (3). In Africa, they litter roads, rivers, boreholes, and sewage systems. In many African countries, increasing plastic pollution has motivated policy-makers to enact legislation to protect the environment from further contamination. Currently, Africa has the highest percentage of countries (∼46%) with plastic bans (4). For example, in 2008, Rwanda took the global lead in banning nonbiodegradable polyethylene bags. The law prohibits the manufacture, use, import, and sale of nonbiodegradable bags that fall outside its sustainability criteria, and violations are punishable by high fines or jail time. It is strictly enforced at airports and other port entries by agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority. Tax incentives in Rwanda are motivating plastic bag manufacturers to consider recycling as a business opportunity. The policy has led to local production of sustainable bags made from local materials, alleviating fears about negative impact on small businesses, jobs, and foreign direct investment.

Some African countries are following Rwanda’s lead, albeit with less effective law enforcement. Tanzania is in the second phase of its plastic ban, and Kenya is following a gradual path by taxing plastic bags. Although Kenya implemented a plastic bag ban in 2017, punishable with fines and jail time, enforcement has been difficult. The tax has decreased consumer demand for single-use plastic shopping bags and increased the use of reusable alternatives. Kenya also is incentivizing community-led collection that is turning plastics into mattresses and eco-friendly asphalt, bricks, fencing posts, school bags, and shoes.

Since its launch in Kenya in 2017, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has championed a Beat Plastic Pollution campaign across Africa, working with governments to establish programs to remediate plastic pollution. UNEP, which relies on voluntary commitments from government, industry, and citizens, has gained ∼2.5 million online commitments from all three groups.

Many of the programs in Africa that limit the production of new, nonbiodegradable plastics have occurred in the last 4 years. Thus, there are few data about the efficacy of these programs and technological efforts to tackle plastic waste, but the engagement and public responses are encouraging. Although efforts to limit plastic use may reduce the introduction of new plastics into the environment, the need to address plastic pollution already present in Africa still remains.

Creating Plastics Recycling Networks

Plastics pollution prevention in Africa is tightly coupled to the economics of recycling. Globally, about 90% of all waste is dumped or burned in low-income countries. In high-income regions, waste management is more regulated and recycling rates are higher (5). Available recycling solutions rely on a centralized location for returning plastic products. In African urban areas where formal waste collection and sorting infrastructure are available (primarily in city centers), new technologies for vehicle-based waste collection can improve collection efficiency. In one example, about 2500 metric tons of waste is generated daily in Nairobi, Kenya, but only ∼50% of the garbage is collected. Researchers at IBM Research–Africa developed tracking devices that enable garbage collection vehicle management. Data such as speed, tonnage of garbage loaded on vehicles, and driver behavior are gathered in real time. The system surveys events from multiple sensors embedded in workers’ mobile phones and applies machine learning to the data (6). The resulting insights for fuel savings, better truck routes, and more efficient trash collection could help county officials expand services to meet waste collection targets.

Waste sorting also is a key challenge. Waste collection bins developed in South Africa, called “smart bins” (7), are equipped with sensors, cameras, and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that recognize, classify, and sort different types of waste into compartments. These bins avoid overflow and enhance collection efficiency by signaling when filled with trash. Newer versions of the bins are paired with apps that send alerts to mobile phones to create awareness about recycling and provide redeemable rewards to encourage positive behavior. For example, points can be redeemed for cash or shopping. Smart bins with improved sorting efficiency are also being manufactured and used in the United States (8). Although this appears to be a promising, deployable technology for plastics sorting, prices will have to decrease for widespread adoption of smart bins.

Such emerging technologies will improve processes associated with conventional recycling ecosystems. However, ever-increasing populations will stress these ecosystems, and new circular ecosystems for plastics recycling are beginning to appear in Africa’s populous cities and surrounding areas.

Plastic Waste Management in Lagos

The African population is expected to grow to 2.5 billion by 2050. Its most populous city, Lagos, Nigeria, is projected to grow to 32.6 million by that time (9, 10). In 2014, 12,000 tons of waste was generated daily by Lagos citizens, 15% of which was plastic (11). The overburdened Lagos municipality collected only about 40% of this total generated waste. Once collected, waste is taken to dumpsites and plastics are recycled manually in the budding recycling sector. Despite health and safety risks involved in this work, informal and formal waste reclaimers are a key component of waste management, not only in Lagos but across Africa. For example, waste workers are responsible for recycling 80 to 90% of the plastic packaging that is recycled in South Africa (12).

Plastic recycling in Africa has focused on commodity plastics and is mainly centered on first-level processing (such as baling and shredding). Such processed plastic is then sold and exported to Asia, where it is down-cycled to products such as pillow stuffing. Although this extends the lifetime of materials, the process creates downcycled products that can no longer be recycled.

The growing population and underutilization of plastic recycling makes Lagos an attractive market to build plastic recycling plants that process plastics to constituent materials. However, recyclers need capital to set up factories that have a guaranteed supply of waste, a stable power supply, working water treatment facilities, a skilled workforce, efficient ports, and easy access to markets for recycled plastic. Because these prerequisites are not readily available, building new recycling plants is not attractive to the average investor. Nevertheless, some intrepid private, foreign investors have successfully established thriving large recycling facilities in Lagos with guaranteed offtake of whatever recycled plastic is produced. If more new recycling plants are built, an opportunity will arise to leverage plastic recycling technologies that also adapt to the local infrastructure—that is, in places outside of urban centers where there are few roads for garbage truck-based collection. As for policies, Nigeria announced plans for a local plastic bag ban in 2013 that was enacted in 2019; however, enforcement of the new ban has been thus far ineffective.

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Mwanyuma Hope Mugambi, a United Nations Environment Programme Young Environmental Leader Award recipient, started a recycling scheme for discarded plastic bags in Mombasa, Kenya.


Fostering Consumer Engagement

Collecting enough plastic waste to feed recycling plants is a continuous struggle anywhere in Africa. Formal collection infrastructure is still being developed across municipalities. The absence of policies to promote plastic recycling at-scale, coupled with limited road networks for general waste collection, little public awareness of plastic recycling, and an unstable global plastic recycling market, has stunted the adoption of recycling in several African cities, including Lagos, Nouakchott, and Monrovia, to name a few (13).

Furthermore, plastic pollution has become commonplace in African communities where most residents live on less than $2.50 a day. Chronic flooding during the rainy season is routinely attributed to littered sachets that block drains. Sachets, which are made primarily of low-density polyethylene, are critical for distributing clean “sachet drinking water” and other affordable single-use personal products in Africa. The environmental conditions in poverty-stricken areas have serious consequences for residents, from missed work and loss of income when clogged drains flood, to the increase in malaria from mosquitoes in stagnant water. Thus, consumer participation in plastic recycling programs, motivated by aid with survival essentials by the government, can play a crucial role in successfully implementing a new plastics recycling infrastructure in Africa and at the same time improving overall quality of life.

Startup companies that leverage consumer motivation have begun to address these societal and environmental issues in Africa. For example, Wecyclers, a recyclable collection business in Lagos (14), incentivizes neighborhoods to address improper waste management by rewarding subscribers who engage in plastic recycling. Door-to-door collection designed for informal settlements is combined with mobile applications, short message service (SMS) technology, and low-cost bicycle-powered collection vehicles. “Agents” gather recyclables directly from households, which receive points (based on weight) through SMS. Plastic waste is weighed, taken to neighborhood Wecyclers processing centers where it is sorted, baled, and then sold to recyclers. Points can be applied to the purchase of goods ranging from foodstuffs to appliances and even cash, thus improving the living standards of local households.

Other recent examples of incentive-based recycling startups in Nigeria underscore the trend toward community-based recycling adoption in Africa. Two of these companies are RecyclePoints (15) and Chanja Datti (16), both founded in 2015. In these business models, collection is facilitated by individual “subscribers” and plastic is exchanged for cash or redeemable points. Mr. Green Africa, founded in 2014 and based in Nairobi, Kenya, leverages smart technology to support an ecosystem that comprises over 2000 waste collectors and has recycled more than 2000 tons of plastic waste to date, which is returned to plastics manufacturers (17). Plastic Bank is a social enterprise deployed in Asia, with plans to expand to South Africa. It employs blockchain technology for collecting and redistributing recycled plastic materials across networks, and partners with global chemical companies to reintroduce recycled plastic to the market (18).

Also important for creating a circular plastics economy is the involvement of plastic manufacturers. Producers can create more easily recyclable plastic products and packaging, reduce plastic volumes in their designs, and replace virgin material with recycled content. Local manufacturers in Africa have begun to use plastic bottle waste for textile production, although collecting enough waste to sustain operations remains challenging. Corporations that profit from the plastic status quo must be incentivized to introduce these radical, but potentially cost-effective, changes. For example, this year the Africa Plastics Recycling Alliance was announced, in which local consumer goods companies committed to increasing recycled plastic content in packaging, thereby stimulating the local plastics recycling economy in Africa (19). A consumer-centered approach for waste collection that works together with plastics manufacturers and other stakeholders across the plastics supply chain can make it feasible for companies to have both a positive economic and environmental impact.

A New Culture

The rapid adoption of information technologies at various points along the plastic waste recycling chain can facilitate the realization of a closed-loop plastic waste ecosystem. Regional factors, such as government regulations and consumer motivation to improve African quality of life, play a critical role in the adoption of technologies to tackle plastic pollution in an environment that otherwise lacks a plastics recycling framework.

Recently, application-centered startups in African cities and surrounding areas have spurred plastic waste collection from citizens in exchange for goods ranging from household items to cash. Combined with emerging technologies, this model has been effective in low-income areas in Africa. If deployed as a global recycling model, networks that leverage consumer participation will promote the availability of high-quality recycled materials that can be reintroduced into the market and close the plastics life-cycle loop.

Acknowledgments: We acknowledge A. V. Garcia for helpful discussions. Some technologies discussed here are related to companies that the authors are affiliated with: Wecyclers (B.A.), IBM Research (J.G. and S.A.), and Plastic Bank (K.S.).

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