By the end of this century, our planet will host another four billion people. Three billion of them will be born in Africa. That’s another three billion people with the associated increase in demand for food, water and energy. Rising to the challenge of these needs presents a daunting task. However, considered from a different lens – it’s another three billion people with hopes, aspirations and dreams. Humanity, on a vast scale, has the potential to take – yet it also has the power to create.
Plastic was created a century ago. It is one of the most groundbreaking material solutions in humanity’s history, transforming modern life. Food is kept fresher for longer. We can protect delicate, life-giving devices and medicines, even when they’re shipped to remote areas to deliver care. Plastic is fundamental to infrastructure, electricity networks and telecommunications that connect our communities and help power our homes.
Supporting our growing population will demand we take advantage of such benefits: yet today we’re at risk of allowing an incredible invention to damage our planet and threaten the precious resources that we’re going to need to sustain us in years to come.
Research from the Ocean Conservancy shows that nearly 80 per cent of plastic waste in the ocean begins as litter on land, the vast majority of which travels to the sea by rivers. One study estimates that over 90 per cent of plastic in the ocean comes from 10 major rivers around the world – eight in Asia, and two in Africa. This poor waste management is not just an environmental disaster; it has major safety implications too. Take Ghana, where open drains fill with litter, hindering water flow and leading to flooding. The result? A proposed plastics ban in 2015 due to a flood-related national disaster in which 200 people died and 46,370 people were affected.
The response was understandable – but is it a long term solution? Are we demonising a material that brings so many benefits, and could be crucial in terms of sustaining a growing population in the future?
See the value, protect the environment, generate economic growth
Here in Africa we have a fantastic opportunity to make plastic a vital part of our burgeoning circular economy. We have an enviable passion for development which is already transforming our societies – so why not harness this and create an international blueprint for how successful circular economies can thrive, with plastic as an obvious example? If we consider the potential economic value that can be derived from plastics post-use, throwing it away may be equivalent to physically throwing Africa’s money away too. And we simply cannot afford to let that happen.
At Dow, we believe that plastics are simply too valuable to go to waste. For example, we are active in ensuring that all plastics we sell into packaging applications have a market after they are used, through application development, new material designs, partnerships, and investments. That commitment is built on a clear set of beliefs on how plastics can be used sustainably: first, we don’t support the over-use of plastic or over-packaging. Plastic should only be used when it offers the lowest environmental impact (through its life cycle for that application). Even where plastic is the best material for the job, as little of it should be used as possible. And when it is the best material for the job, as little of it should be used as possible.
Secondly: no plastic should end up in the environment. If plastic retains value through its life-span, in future it will be too valuable to be lost to the environment. But we also believe we have a responsibility today to help to clean up plastic that has entered our land and marine environment.
As a result, we are putting investment and action into three key areas: ensuring no plastics get into the environment; delivering circular economy solutions and increasing impact through partnerships. We are approaching these key pillars in a variety of ways, through innovation to enhance the recyclability of plastics, through awareness and education campaigns, and by ensuring there is an end market for recycled material. And all of this is happening right now, right here, in Africa.
Innovation through collaboration
Take the remarkable, African-led combination of education, engagement and clean-up branded Project Butterfly: an initiative created by Dow to raise awareness of the devastating impact of littering and poor waste management in Africa. Working with local communities, association Plastics SA and grassroots NGOs in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the project shows not only how vital it is to keep local environments litter-free, but demonstrates the value of recycling – transforming ordinary waste into something new.
Such important, collaborative initiatives encourage us all to look closely at the entire lifecycle of the impact of plastics and drive improvements across the value chain. Fundamental to this is driving down plastic waste in all its forms from initial production through to end of life – and valuing its role in helping to reduce waste in other value chains along the way.
Initiatives such as the Dow-led Pack Studios are already reaping rewards in Africa, where we are working with partners to create new solutions for plastic packaging, focusing on design and re-use: down-gauging, light-weighting, resource efficiency and recyclability. This includes offering technology and materials to accelerate easy to recycle packaging designs as well as the use of compatibilizers to enhance post-consumer recyclables. These are all essential elements of more sustainable plastics design
Creating circular economy in Africa
However, if we don’t deal with end-of-life plastic in whatever form we find it, then we are not looking at the whole solution. We must accelerate recovery of plastic and reap value from it – and despite the bleak imagery of plastics in the environment, Africa is in fact already a leading light in this respect and has the potential to set a global example.
A report by Plastics SA shows the plastics recycling industry in South Africa created jobs for almost 58,100 people through the formal and informal sector, contributing over $30 million to the economy in 2017. The country’s recycling rate is an impressive 43.7 per cent, well above the European average of 31.1 per cent. This development in plastic recycling stems from three decades of targeted regulatory changes in the waste management sector, as well as voluntary waste management initiatives such as PETCO – the PET Recycling Company NPC, a company incorporated in 2004 by the South African PET plastic industry to effect post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling.
Let’s go back to Ghana, the scene of those fatal floods in 2015. Dow, along with seven other global companies, has initiated an incredible project, GRIPE (Ghana Recycling Initiative by Private Enterprise), which aims to drive an improved plastic waste value chain. The project – which identified plastic modified concrete for construction, wood-plastic composite for furniture and plastic modified bitumen for roads as second life solutions – helps enable diversion of waste from landfill, provides jobs through waste collection, sorting and processing centers and effects behavioral change to reduce littering and help protect the marine environment.
Another great African example is the recycling start-up Destination Green in Tembisa, South Africa, with funding and expertise from Dow and Plastics SA. The Tembisa Township has no waste management infrastructure and litter had become a major problem. Destination Green is now a burgeoning recycling business, processing over 35MT of plastic every week in Tembisa and with potential to expand even further.
Dow is also working with the Wildlands Conservation Trust in Durban to expand their Recycling Village model with an aim to collect 1.2 million kilograms recyclable waste from over 10,000 homes, generating value in waste plastic, providing employment, and improving living standards. The project includes an experimental extrusion line designed to turn previously unrecyclable plastic into recyclate, material that can be used to create school desks and building materials. Now Wildlands is investing in technology which will enable them to use waste plastic and transform it back into diesel, providing fuel for waste collection trucks. Another big part of Wildlands’ success is empowering the “wastepreneurs” who collect and sort the litter and receive a regular income, improving their environment and their lives.
A golden opportunity from plastic
These examples, amongst others, are just some of the ways in which Dow is localizing scalable solutions to address plastics in the environment. I believe that securing the role of plastics in Africa’s circular economy could move us towards a world where the practical and social benefits of plastics can be matched by its environmental performance. This way, not only should no plastics end up in the environment, but we could contribute to Africa’s economic growth at the same time.
It will require the participation of everyone across the entire value chain and the long term commitment of businesses, governments, and communities. No one country, company or community can solve this on their own – but surely this is a golden opportunity for a continent which not only has the potential to lead the way, but has pressing needs for doing so. As the African proverb says, “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors we borrow it from our children.”
Those three billion extra people have the chance to benefit from a new, sustainable future for plastics – but only if we take action now.
Lowry, is the Global Sustainability and End Use Marketing Director, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics