February 28, 2024

Plastic waste is “spiralling out of control” across Africa, where it is growing faster than any other region, new analysis has shown.

At current levels, enough plastic waste to cover a football pitch is openly dumped or burned in sub-Saharan Africa every minute, according to the charity Tearfund.

If the trend continues unabated, the region is projected to end up with 116m tonnes of plastic waste annually by 2060, six times more than the 18m tonnes of waste produced in 2019. The main driver of rising plastic consumption in sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of the population is under 30, is demand for vehicles and other products amid rising income and population growth.

Overall, plastic use worldwide is projected to almost triple by 2060.

The soaring demand for plastic predicted across sub-Saharan Africa, where many countries do not have the capacity to manage it, was revealed before a meeting of governments in Nairobi, Kenya, next week to hammer out a UN treaty to fight plastic pollution.

Rich Gower, senior economist at Tearfund, said: “The signs of environmental breakdown are all around us, but this treaty has the potential to curb the plastics crisis and improve the lives of billions of people.

“Much of the plastic being used in sub-Saharan Africa is plastic packaging and ends up being dumped and burned,” he added. He urged negotiators in Nairobi to agree to significant reductions in plastic production and to put waste pickers, who dispose of 60% of global plastic waste, front and centre of the treaty.

In the absence of global rules and regulations, people living in developing countries and the waste pickers who dispose of the waste, disproportionately bear the brunt of the environmental and health impacts of plastic pollution.

Dr Tiwonge Mzumara-Gawa, from Malawi, a waste campaigner who will be at the negotiations in Kenya, said: “While these negotiations continue, the health of people in Malawi and across Africa is being impacted by plastic pollution every day.

John Chweya, chairman of the waste pickers’ association of Kenya, pushes a handcart through the city of Kisumu.
John Chweya, chairman of the waste pickers’ association of Kenya, pushes a handcart through Kisumu. Photograph: Edwin Ndeke/The Guardian

“In Malawi, we see burning and dumping of plastic waste every day, harming people’s health . These negotiations have shown that change is coming, but it will not come easily. There are some who profit from this plastic crisis and want to keep ambition as low as possible.”

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An open letter to representatives of the Africa Group and others attending the negotiation in Nairobi, signed by 80 bishops and church leaders, said the region was facing “mountains” of mismanaged plastic waste.

A few miles across the river from the site of the UN conference is the Dandora landfill site, where 30 lorryloads of plastic waste are dumped every day. It is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, flies and vermin, increasing the risk of malaria, cholera, diarrhoeal disease and other illnesses.

In May, before the last round of negotiations of the plastics treaty, John Chweya, the head of the waste pickers in Kenya, who has been instrumental in pushing countries to recognise the world’s 20 million waste pickers, said he wanted justice for collectors, as well as healthcare, a proper income and better working conditions, to be included in the treaty.

Tearfund’s analysis is based on statistics from a database of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and is published in Global Policies Outlook.

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