The world is in a plastic waste crisis. As of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated.
Much of this waste is produced by developed countries who then ship it to countries like China, Malaysia, and the Philippines, causing these countries to rank highly on the mismanaged plastic waste scale. The United States, for example, used to export close to half of its plastic waste, most of which was not recyclable, to China for recycling until China pulled out of the agreement in 2017 after accepting the waste for close to three decades. This year, the news is filled with reports of Malaysia and Philippines sending plastic waste back to America and Europe.
Africa, the second-largest continent by landmass and population, doesn't contribute as much plastic waste as you would imagine a continent of that size and population to produce. In fact, Africa produces little plastic waste in comparison.
However, even though Africa produces less plastic waste than others, most of this waste is mismanaged. In 2010, Africa was estimated to have 4.4 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste – a figure that could rise to 10.5 million tonnes in 2025 if nothing is done, scientists warned in a study published in 2018.
One way Africa is dealing with this is by banning and regulating plastics. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), up to 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed each year. When these bags are disposed of improperly, they can clog waterways, choke marine life and provide a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. When dumped in landfills, they can take centuries to decompose.
More than 90 countries have restrictions on single-use plastic bags, with Panama becoming the latest country to enact one - a single-use plastic bag ban - on July 20. Other recent additions to the single-use plastic bag ban club include Tanzania and New Zealand. 36 other countries regulate these bags with levies and fees. Plastic bans and regulations are more widespread in Africa than in any other continent.
The low waste-collection and recycling rates in Africa make the problem of waste plastic more visible, especially as Africa exports very little plastic and lacks a strong industry lobby. This is why the bans are more widespread in Africa. However, the bans do not come without their problems.
First of all, they mostly only regulate single-use plastic bags. However, some countries have plans for expansion. Kenya, for example, plans on expanding the regulations to other plastic products including plastic packaging and recently rolled out regulations on plastic bottles in parks.
Secondly, the regulations often only target one part of the life cycle of the plastics such as manufacture, distribution, or disposal.
Are plastic bans the answer to plastic pollution? By themselves, the bans cannot do that much; they have to be combined with other measures and policies, but the fact remains that something needs to be done.
Header Image Credit: UNEP, The Economist