- Just 10 rivers across Africa and Asia carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in our oceans
- Along the South African coast, there are over 3000 plastic particles every square kilometer.
- Over one million tons of plastic are thrown away in South Africa every year.
- Approximately 500 shipping containers of waste are dumped in Africa every month.
- A recent study found that only 10% of all trash produced in Africa was recycled.
- An immeasurable number of towns across the continent have no official waste collection service, meaning there is nowhere for litter to go.
The numbers look drastic and are hard to believe. The organization has been at it for over 15 years which gives them a fair degree of credibility. It has found that Africa is the second most polluted continent on the planet and is working to reduce the impact of plastic pollution and litter and within communities.
Despite these shocking statistics, the surprising fact is that many African countries are actually at the forefront of the fight against plastic. Countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Morocco have banned plastic bags entirely, while South Africa enforces high fees for the purchase of a plastic bag in supermarkets. Many governments feel that Africa has the potential to leapfrog the traditional cycle of waste-collect-dispose and create a circular economy with creative solutions to reuse-repurpose-recycle.
African Impact’s plastic and environmental sustainability initiative aims to reduce the impact of plastic and waste on communities and people, the environment and wildlife in Africa. Across two locations in South Africa and Zambia, the organization is connecting fiercely passionate international volunteers and interns with driven, motivated local communities, who are then able to work together to solve one of our planet’s most pressing issues: plastic and waste.
In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 13, 14, and 15, this initiative champions locally developed and locally-led solutions that focus on the prevention of waste, direct clean-up action and explore creative opportunities for reusing, repurposing and recycling plastics.
Recycling and Repurposing
The Green Buildings Council of South Africa (GBCSA) indicates that the impact of baby nappies, adult diapers, sanitary pads and other nonwovens on landfills and the environment is devastating: increasing the collective aggregate of greenhouse gas emissions which in turn impact climate change. Additional downstream environmental harm is worth noting: possible ground water contamination and probable harm to human, bird and animal life.
Landfills pollute the environment by releasing harmful methane gases generated by decomposing organic waste into the atmosphere. Methane gas (greenhouse gas) is considered to be more harmful than carbon dioxide which is harmful to all inhabitants living near the landfill. Treating the landfills helps, however South Africa has seen a proliferation of illegal landfills that have gone untreated affecting the groundwater in the area, humans, plants and the environment. The situation is often worse in rural areas where the disposable nappies are disposed in rivers and open areas. The lack of service delivery in rural and township areas makes the problem of indiscriminate dumping even worse.
The National Waste Act No. 59 of 2008: National Environmental Management: Management Act: part 3 section 17 lays down the guidelines for dealing with landfill waste in South Africa. Within the Act, AHP waste entering landfills can be managed through recovery methods, and/or 100% recycling of the AHP to be reused and converted into new products for new markets thus alleviating greenhouse gases and depletion of natural resources normally associated with disposal and production of new products.
The GBCSA welcomes combined efforts from both the public sector and private sector to tackle the AHP problem. Notable among these is The ‘Green’ Knowaste process. Knowaste, a European based company that is involved in the recycling of AHP waste, plans to establish a network of collection agents who will collect AHP products from hospitals, Old Age Homes, Retirement Homes, nursery/daycare centers, domestic residences and other locations. The products will then be transported to the Knowaste recycling plant where they will be 100% recycled and processed into fibers and plastics for industry production. New markets that can use the resulting by-products have been identified, which include the road making industry, wood working industry, construction industry, plastic components industry, and in the manufacturing of aromatics – a process which is currently being tested in the Netherlands, and which will most probably include Knowaste recycled AHP fiber.
Knowaste is part of a number of companies that are involved in the AHP value chain that have moved into the Africa region in recent years. It is indeed encouraging to see that amongst the AHP players that have expanded their interests into the Africa region, which includes diaper manufacturers, nonwovens raw materials manufacturers, diaper machine manufacturers and others, AHP recyclers are among them.
According to a 2010 Deloitte UK study, the Knowaste ‘green’ recycling process has significant impact on the environment. The study was conducted to assess the Knowaste ‘Green’ recycling process environmental impact. The control was the customary process of diverting AHP to landfill and incinerators in the U.K. The results were as follows: Based on 36,000 metric tons of AHP per annum recycled: Savings of 22,536 metric tons of Greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to:
- 7,487 cars removed from the roads in the U.K.
- Annual carbon emissions of 2064 U.K. citizens
- 102,436 LCD televisions switched off
- Toxicity impacts to humans reduction of up to 97%
- Toxicity impacts to animals reduction of up to 99%
- Toxicity impacts to plants reduction of up to 99%
- Acid rain impacts reduction of up to 48%
- Resource depletion reduced by up to 54%
- Eutrophication reduction of up to 93%
“Used baby diapers are discarded along roadsides and bridges, in water drainage systems and they often end up directly in streams and rivers. This new pollution, combined with impacts from mining, excessive soil erosion and increased land transformation is pushing southern Africa’s rivers to the limits of sustainability,” says the Green Times website.
The disposal of baby diapers is a big challenge as they are causing methane gas in landfills. In addition, improper disposal of disposable diapers causes blockages in the cities, and this leads to floods during the rainy season. The floods cause major traffic jams and this has to have a concomitant impact on the economy. A number of African governments seem to want to place the burden of diaper waste at the door of the manufacturer. We are seeing this in Zimbabwe and a few other countries. The solution probably lies somewhere in between the manufacturers, the communities, the retailers and the consumers.
The Green Times website in South Africa points out that local community-based organizations are working to clear sections of these rivers but are struggling due to a lack of support. They often lack the basic protection like rubber boots and gloves and having to commit their own sparse equipment.
Apart from the obvious plastic pollution, used diapers (whether adult diapers or baby diapers) contain human excrement, which should never be disposed of irresponsibly as it might lead to dangerous disease epidemics. According to the World Health Organization, used diapers should first be rinsed before being discarded, to ensure raw human waste does not get disposed of in landfills. It is very doubtful if any consumers follow these guidelines.
African Governments and the Ban on Plastics
In 2017, the Kenyan government banned plastic bags. Anyone violating the plastic bag law in Kenya, the strictest of its kind in the world, faces a maximum penalty of €32,000 or a jail term of up to four years. Police are working closely with the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) to enforce the rules, and so far, officials say, patrols of streets and markets have led to around 100 manufacturers and sellers being arrested and fined. A number of consumers have found viable alternatives to using plastics since the ban and by their own admission have adapted well and are coping.
The biggest critic of the ban is the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), which represents 170 plastic-producing companies that employ almost 3% of the Kenyan workforce. Sachen Gudka, who runs a label-manufacturing company, is chairman of KAM and one of the country’s most influential businessmen. He argues that a lot of companies, which received no government compensation following the ban, had to close in its wake, and that around 60,000 jobs were lost.
“Kenya used to have a thriving economy in terms of plastic bags to the neighboring countries, all those export earnings have now been lost to Kenya,” Gudka said.
Some players feel that viable alternatives to plastics should have been sought first, and some think that there are not a lot of alternatives. Some welcome the move and suggest reusing what’s already out there. “Let’s embrace the collection, recycling, upcycling aspect and create a viable circular economy around the whole issue.” The student activist who helped put the plastics issue on the government agenda, is now working with activists from Zambia and Sudan on a forward strategy on plastics. He believes that although progress has been made, he knows the broader issue is far from solved.