Why Waste Recycling in Africa is Essential for the world
Today March 18, 2022, is the global recycling day, and the theme this year focuses on celebrating the “recycling fraternity”. It is also a time of reflecting and interrogating the recycling foundation we have built over the years.
The entire globe generates slightly over 2billion tonnes of solid waste every year, and of this amount, only about 19% of this waste is recycled. In the critical plastic waste area, which was the subject of a ground-breaking global resolution to end plastic pollution at UNEA5.2, the entire globe recycles less than 10% of over 242million tonnes of plastic generated every year.
These low levels of recycling are reflected in Africa as well. Of the 125million tonnes of solid waste generated every year, 70–80% of this waste is recyclable. However, the continent recycles only 4% of this total waste and fewer plastics. Africa generates just about a 16million tonnes of plastic waste annually, which is only 6% of plastic waste generated globally. There is, therefore, an urgent need for not just Africa but the entire globe to shift towards circularity in the waste sector.
The biggest challenges of recycling in Africa?
We need to begin by acknowledging what the region has done correctly then build on that to identify the gaps that need to be addressed. What Africa has done quite well is on the legislative front. Over 34 African countries, representing over 60% of the continent, have crucial legislation on waste management, which is the framework within which recycling can occur. However, the continent continues to grapple with waste management issues because of the failure to prioritise two contextual issues in the waste landscape.
First is a lack of incentives for a critical constituency of the continent’s waste management supply chain — the informal waste pickers. Informal pickers collect a majority of the continent’s recyclable waste. In some cities, they collect up to 90% of recyclables. On average, waste pickers deal with between 20% and 50% of the generated waste by collecting, sorting, and selling discarded materials. However, there are no targeted incentives to enhance the contribution of these informal pickers. Instead, they face social stigma, abuse from municipal & security officials, and other disincentives that prevent them from getting their livelihoods. What needs to happen is for such informal pickers to form themselves into formally recognised groups such as communal cooperatives, self-help groups, and community-based organisations. So they can operate their informal businesses within formally recognised structures that can enable them to make their voices heard in terms of specific incentives they will need to further expand their services to the continent’s waste management landscape.
The second is a recycling narrative that does not reflect Africa’s waste composition. While plastic waste constitutes only 13% of solid waste generated in Africa, up to 57% of the waste in Africa is organic. Recycling organic waste, therefore, offers more advantages for Africa. It is less capital intensive than plastics, making it more accessible to most continents. It also has potential for wider-ranging impacts beyond waste. For example, recovering agricultural waste to fuel briquettes or biogas creates clean cooking alternatives to charcoal use, a $20billion a year industry. This alternative then minimises pressure in forests, which contributes over 50% of Africa’s emissions and health by minimising indoor pollution, which causes up to 700,000 deaths each year. Young people across Africa provide a formidable force to be leveraged in recycling organic waste to domestic clean cooking energy, for example, a $20billion a year enterprise opportunity. But they must inspire themselves to seize such opportunities.
Why recycling is essential for the African continent and the world
The socio-economic and environmental opportunities that recycling presents for Africa are impossible to ignore.
On the socio-economic front, the informal sector has low hanging fruits — especially the youth stand to benefit by recycling organic waste, the most prevalent in Africa. Up to $20billion in market opportunities stand to be tapped if our young people can retool their skills in the non-capital-intensive area of waste recovery to clean cooking. The building construction area, which is growing, is another that young people can tap by investing in plastic waste recycling into paving tiles.
But beyond the informal sector, formal plastic recycling is also an area Africa can tap, as shown by 2 of Africa’s largest economies — Nigeria & South Africa. In Nigeria, for example, an additional $250million can be added into the economy every year with increased investments in plastic recycling. In South Africa, plastic recycling has created over 4000 direct jobs and over 30,000 indirect jobs, and this has added over $16million directly into people’s pockets through the payroll.
Environmentally, projections show that under the status quo, meeting global developmental needs will require a 200% increase in natural resource extraction by 2050. This is happening in a globe where humanity is already overdrawing by 1.6times the services that nature can provide sustainably to guarantee human development well into the future. This calls for recycling to minimise the extraction of resources. For Africa, which experiences the second-highest level of losses from environmental degradation with over $60billion of its ecological resources lost every year, including through mining, logging etc., for resources that power global development, increased recycling to minimise extortion of new resources for every production cycle is very critical.
Low recycling levels mean the globe loses over $120billion each year in recycling opportunities that could otherwise be invested to enhance the continent’s recycling, including through partnerships as provided under Article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement.