Unep: Plastic waste a ticking time bomb

Wednesday June 02 2021

A dumping site. The UN has raised alarm over the growing threat to human health and the environment from hazardous waste generated by plastic in Africa. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


The United Nations has raised alarm over the growing threat to human health and the environment from hazardous waste generated by plastic in Africa.

Now, the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) Regional Office of Africa is recommending that Africa cushions itself from the unfolding plastic menace by adding all forms of plastics to Annex 1 of the Bamako Convention that prohibits and regulates importation and trans-boundary movement and management of hazardous wastes within Africa states.

Unep said it was particularly concerned about future reversal of the gains against plastic pollution in some countries.

“Kenya, with one of the world’s strictest bans is now in talks for a bilateral trade agreement with the US (that) seeks to dilute the domestic laws on plastics with pressure from the US chemical and plastics industry,” said the Unep, in a policy brief prepared by regional coordinator for Africa, Science - Policy Division at UN Environment, Charles Sebukeera.

“With growing internal trade and porous borders, this could render the efforts of other African countries ineffective,” the document says and advises Africa to join like-mined World Trade Organisation member states to launch a “Make trade work against plastic pollution” campaign on plastic pollution at the upcoming November-December 2021 WTO Ministerial Conference.

Unep is also pushing for formation of regional economic communities (RECs) to invoke regional level mandates such as the Polythene materials control Bill, to stand against pressures from external trading partners and industrial lobbies.


Ugly downside

Of the 6,300 million tonnes (Mt) of plastic waste generated, only an estimated nine percent has been recycled, 12 percent has been incinerated, while a whopping 79 percent accumulates in landfills.

Unep warns that buried plastics can leak harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater from deep landfills, while toxic gases from open-air plastic burning pits could cause cancer, heart disease, asthma, emphysema and damage to the nervous systems. Clogged drains lead to flooding and increased diseases (like malaria) from mosquitoes in stagnant water.

While data on plastic importation, production, and consumption in Africa is dispersed, and sometimes not available, it is estimated that in 2018 five percent of the total value of global trade — or $1 trillion — was in plastics.

New trade deals heighten fears that these countries may become the world's next dumping ground for plastic waste

“Risk of plastic waste exports to ill-equipped low-income countries increases due to China’s ban on the import of non-industrial plastic waste,” said the brief.

According to Unep, Egypt imports most of the plastic that comes into the continent at 18.7 percent, Nigeria imports the second most plastic at 17 percent, South Africa follows with 11.7 percent of imports, Algeria imports 11.3 percent, Morocco 9.6 percent, and Tunisia seven percent. Kenya is the seventh biggest importer followed by Ghana, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

More than 117.6Mt consisting of about 86.14Mt of polymers in primary form and 31.50Mt as products entered Africa through 33 countries between 1990 and 2017.

By 2030, some 235.3 Mt of polymers and plastics in these forms would be consumed in these 33 African countries. Unep says if there are no policy changes to reverse this trend, it would amount to 344 Mt by 2030 for the entire continent.


The wide variety of polymers used in plastic makes it difficult to manage when they become waste and are mixed. Approximately 88 percent of waste plastics are disposed of, burned or buried. Degraded plastics are easily transported by storm run-off and end up in water bodies.

Unep is calling for a change of tact and suggests various policy amendments across the continent covering manufacture, consumption and disposal of plastics.

Among the policy recommendations Unep urges countries to institute a tax based on the environmental performance of products.

It also advises them to introduce subsidies for research and innovation in dealing with the plastic menace, and removal of subsidies that promote plastic production and trade such as those to the petrochemical industry.

To discourage use of plastic materials by consumers, Unep wants countries to increase the price on plastic products, introduce a waste charge and employ deposit-refund schemes on plastic bottles, while in the same vein imposing weight-based pricing of waste,

“There are multiple ways the plastic industry can contribute to reduce pollution, such as designing new biodegradable plastic materials, reducing the ratio and amount of plastic materials in new products, manufacturing products with a longer lifecycle, displaying the ratio recycled versus new plastic used in a product and developing and implementing chemical recycling facilities for mixed and polluted plastic waste fractions,” said Sebukeera.