In some way or another, Africa and plastic formed a close relationship a long time ago. At the checkout, all your groceries are packed in small plastic carrier bags – you don’t get big shoppers here. But the problem is that most of these bags don’t end up in the rubbish bin but land up somewhere in the environment after only being used once. And most plastic bottles end up on the streets – the deposit system is very European.

Also very European is the idea that the entire system of separate waste processing and recycling should be organised by the government. No, in Africa it’s left to private initiatives to set up these systems. And it’s surprising to see how quickly that can happen. There are already large numbers of small plastic recycling companies making things like garden furniture and rubbish bins out of recycled plastic. But many people still don’t bother to recycle, so substantial volumes of glass, plastic, paper and metal are still ending up in landfill sites. How long do you want to go on filling up your country with your own rubbish? Never mind the fact that less energy is needed to produce things with recycled materials than with new materials. And as a continent, we already have enough trouble providing an adequate and stable electricity supply.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. There has been a Recycling Day in South Africa for several years now, and International Coastal Clean-up Day took place on 16 September. All the plastic waste that blows out to sea has a significant impact on the ecosystem and on life in our oceans. I am actually writing this column in the week in which the Kenyan government announced that anyone stopped on the street with a plastic bag in hand can expect an exorbitant fine of thousands of dollars. I happened to be in Kenya this week and it was amazing to see everyone walking around holding their shopping in their hands or carrying it in big packages. Not a single plastic bag in sight. Well – at least they can no longer blow out to sea.

Whether that’s really the way to do it, I’m not sure, but it certainly works. A great lesson on how to put environmental awareness on the daily agenda of your entire population in one fell swoop.

Herbert Stolker
Senior Consultant Africa