Nearly half of all plastics used globally are only used once. Almost 80 percent of all plastics end up in landfills or in the natural environment, where it takes thousands of years to decompose. African countries already struggle to manage waste pollution, and the expected growth in the use of plastics on the continent will have serious human health and environmental impacts. But a new report for the Malawian government, which recommends urgent legislation that will help throttle back on this source of pollution, should apply to all countries on the continent, writes environmental economist Dr Jane Turpie*.
African cities are on the frontline of the problem of plastic pollution on the continent. Cities are development hubs, where nearly half of the region’s populations now live, and where the bulk of these country’s waste is generated. It also means that municipalities have to cope with the infrastructure damage and health hazards resulting from uncontrolled waste dumping, which clogs up storm water systems, causing flooding, contamination of stagnant water, and disease outbreaks.
Our recent report for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) looks at the state of plastics pollution in Malawi, and how the country should respond. We conclude that Malawi should reintroduce the country’s 2015 ban on plastic bags, which was suspended after pressure from business, and extend this to also include a ban on all single-use plastics. This will help curb the considerable health and environmental consequences for Malawi which will result if the country doesn’t address this serious source of pollution.
Looking at the question of plastic pollution in the case of Malawi, we highlight the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts of plastic pollution. We recommend the banning of thin plastics in Malawi, and suggest ways in which government policymakers, industry, the retail sector, consumers, manufacturers, environmental groups, and civil society need to engage with this issue.
Other African countries should also consider such measures, in order to avoid the serious health hazards and environmental fallout as the use of plastics continues to grow on the continent, and as countries’ waste management systems fall behind in terms of managing their waste.
Clogged drains, contaminated food chains
Since the 1950s, the production and use of plastics has increased dramatically around the world. In the early 2000s, plastic waste increased more than it had in the previous 40 years. Globally, we produce over 300 million tonnes of plastics each year, nearly the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population.
With poor waste management and little recycling happening, about 80 percent of plastics end up in landfills, and nearly half of that gets into the natural environment where it takes thousands of years to decompose. This form of pollution has serious implications for our health, both in terms of its impact on our ocean-based food sources and in terms of the hazards caused by blocked storm water drains in cities. Huge amounts of plastic are entering the environment every year.
African cities already experience frequent and severe flooding, which often brings production to a standstill and causes casualties and epidemics. This is partly due to poor services in unplanned informal settlements, inadequate drainage systems, and poor waste management systems. This can result in flooding, pollution, and outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as cholera. Plastic plays a big part in clogging drainage systems, so if plastic waste doubles on the content, as it’s expected to, these problems will only get worse.
When plastic debris gets washed into rivers, lakes, or oceans, it doesn’t decompose, but rather breaks down into microscopic particles. These tiny fragments of plastics end up getting into every conceivable food chain, impacting on animal welfare, biodiversity, fishery production, and the safety of aquatic foods. It also contaminates the surface and groundwater that we drink. When water-based animals eat micro-plastics, it builds up in the animals’ body tissue. If we eat these animals, we ingest the micro-plastics, too. The chemicals in plastics are toxic, and also contain hormone-like compounds that can be damaging for the human body.
The UN Environment Programme estimates that the cost of plastic use just from the consumer goods sector, in terms of the social and environmental impacts, amounts to about US$75 billion each year, more than half of which is related to plastic packaging. These costs are measured in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, pollution from collecting and treating plastic waste, end-of-life impact of chemical additives in plastic leaching into the environment, loss of amenity caused by litter, costs of litter to marine industries, and the ecological cost linked to the loss of species.
Growing wealth and the changing face of retail in Malawi
In a country like Malawi, which is growing and urbanising quickly, there’s a rising demand for plastics. People are getting wealthier, and consumerism is rising. Shopping is moving away from street vendors and smaller businesses, and towards supermarket chains and department stores. Consumer goods are increasingly being packaged and carried in plastic, most of which is only used once.
Vendors use thin plastic bags, more and more retail outlets use plastic packaging and bags, beverage companies have switched from glass to plastic, and due to water quality concerns, demand for bottled water is on the rise.
Waste collection in Malawi is poor, with only 42 percent collected by state services and 4 percent getting recycled by municipalities. The lack of public awareness around waste further contributes to the country not coping with the amount of waste it generates.
The four largest cities in Malawi together generate over 1000 tonnes in solid waste per day. Wealthier households produce more than double the waste of poor households, and the plastic component of waste has increased to nearly a third in more affluent areas.
Business push-back to Malawi’s first plastic ban
Recognising the increasing problem of plastic pollution, and in step with efforts by many neighbouring countries to address the crisis, Malawi introduced legislation in 2015 which banned the manufacture, import, distribution, and use of plastics thinner than 60 microns.
But businesses lobbied strongly against the ban, arguing that it would lead to job losses and other economic fallout, which resulted in the state halting the implementation of the Environment Management (Plastics) Regulations.
However, with plastic pollution coming under the spotlight globally, and Malawi signing the United Nations Environment Assembly resolution on single-use plastics, the country is re-looking at its policies on plastic.
Where to from here?
Around the world, efforts to address plastic pollution is moving away from hoping that recycling will resolve the problem, and acknowledges that there needs to be a drastic cut in the amount of plastic being produced and used. Different countries are trying a range of approaches to discourage plastic production and use, mostly through taxes, outright bans, or a combination of the two. Already, some 26 African countries have banned plastics in recent years.
In our report, we conclude that outright bans on plastics internationally are most effective for dealing with single-use plastics, and that this is also a good way to stimulate economic growth in the area of alternative packaging options.
We recommend, therefore, that African countries like Malawi should consider following through with the implementation of the ban on plastic bags, but that it should also extend to include all single-use plastic. This ban needs to be supported by strong advocacy campaigns, public education, and strict enforcement. Subsidies or other forms of assistance could help to stimulate recycling and the development of alternatives to plastic packaging, where necessary. Pollution taxes on the production and use of other plastics could help draw in revenue that could be put towards improved waste management. There also needs to be better monitoring of the production and consumption of plastic, and how plastic and other solid waste is managed. These measures should extend to countries across the continent, who face similar growth in demand for plastics, as well as the waste problems resulting from this increased use.
*Dr Jane Turpie is an environmental economist based at the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) and is director of Anchor Environmental Consultants. The Case for Banning Single-use Plastic products in Malawi, authored by Jane Turpie, Gwyneth Letley, Yolanda Ng’oma and Kate Moore, was done as a collaboration between Anchor and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).