African nations have the power and tools to re-engineer a future without plastic pollution

By | June 5, 2023

This opinion first appeared in The Nation Africa

Around the world, cities, oceans and landscapes are clogged with plastic waste, creating risks to human health, threatening biodiversity and destabilizing the climate. That’s why, on World Environment Day this year, the United Nations Environment Program is calling on everyone to do what they can to end plastic pollution.

The world produces about 430 million tons of plastic annually and it is increasing. Recycling systems cannot cope with this volume; recycling rates are less than 10%. We absolutely cannot hope to launder our way out of this crisis. We need a complete redesign of how we use, produce, recycle and dispose of plastic – a redesign that starts with eliminating as much plastic and associated harmful chemicals as possible from products and packaging.

This redesign began last year at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, when nations agreed to start negotiations on a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. The second round of talks on this agreement has just concluded, setting the mandate for draft zero of the agreement to be negotiated at the United Nations Environment Program headquarters in Nairobi later this year.

Kenya, and the rest of the African continent, will have a crucial role to play in this agreement, not least because this agreement was born in Kenya. Not least because it is in African nations, and other developing countries, where the challenges of plastic pollution injustice play out. This is visible in the mainland’s Dandoras, where informal waste workers risk their health to earn a living.

The strong presence of the African group of negotiators in the negotiation process signaled Africa’s commitment to ending plastic pollution. African nations can drive ambition into the deal, which means focusing everyone’s minds on the redesign. Redesign products to use less plastic, especially unnecessary and problematic plastics. Redesign product packaging to use less plastic. Redesign systems and products for reuse, refill and recyclability so that, for example, recycled polymer becomes a more valuable commodity than raw polymer. Redesign the broader system for justice so that groups such as informal waste workers receive decent jobs and a clean environment.

Ambition means improving Africa’s low waste collection rates. It means investing in recycling and waste management infrastructure to deal with plastics that cannot be engineered or reused. Ambition means addressing the legacy of plastic pollution in our oceans that continues to wash up on the shores of African countries. Ambition must also mean solidarity so that developing countries have the necessary financial resources.

African nations can also foster ambition by sharing their knowledge. Hundreds of millions of Africans already do many of the right things in their daily lives. People reuse and repair products, a lifestyle and culture that must be relearned elsewhere, where take-use-pull consumerism has become dominant. Across Africa, we see creative initiatives: as in Rwanda, where the government has supported local factories to switch to the production of bamboo and paper-based materials after banning single-use plastic bags.

These are the kinds of initiatives that will enable African nations to move towards a plastic-free future, pioneering innovative manufacturing, packaging and design solutions in the same way that Kenya pioneered mobile money. African governments can lead the required transformation, nationally and globally, by sharing such practices and ensuring legislation promotes new business models rather than reverting to single-use plastic production. Enforcement is also important and it is good to see Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority taking action against illegal single-use plastics.

This year’s World Environment Day is a time for Kenya, Africa and the world to mobilize and engage in stronger action. Governments must reach a strong agreement to end plastic pollution. Industry and the private sector need to innovate to move their business models away from plastics. Consumers can reduce demand by refusing plastic whenever possible. Community-led action can lobby using their voices to make good noise.

Taking action to end plastic pollution is a great opportunity. If we act with unity, we can virtually eliminate plastic pollution by 2040; reduce social, environmental and human health costs; create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, mainly in developing countries; and open up new markets and business opportunities.

Everyone wins, provided we ensure a just transition for developing countries and for groups such as informal waste sector workers. So, on World Environment Day, I’m calling on everyone to join the global movement and end plastic pollution, once and for all.

Inger Andersen is the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)

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