African digital innovators turn plastic waste into value

Plastic pollution is a growing global threat. Between 2010 and 2020, the global production of plastics increased from 270 million tons to 367 million tons. Every year, more than 12 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans, with serious consequences for marine life. When macroplastics break down into microplastics, they easily contaminate the food chain and pose significant threats to human health via inhalation and ingestion.

In 2030, plastic waste is expected to double to 165 million tonnes in African countries. Most of this will be in Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

A significant proportion of the plastic that ends up on African shores is produced in developed, industrialized countries. In 2010, it was estimated that close to 4.4 million tons of poorly managed plastic waste was in the seas and oceans off the coast of Africa each year. An estimate for 2022 has put this figure at 17 million tonnes.

A growing number of NGOs and innovators across the continent are responding to the challenge. They develop digital solutions to reduce the production of plastic waste and promote the reuse and recycling of plastic products. Increasingly, African technology centers are incorporating environmental sustainability into their business models.

In our latest paper, we highlight ongoing efforts and innovations in what is called the plastics value chain. This includes four phases, from design of plastic products to manufacture, use and end of life.

We found a number of initiatives that are transforming the plastic value chain into a smart, innovative and sustainable network. Most aim to improve plastic identification, collection, transport, sorting, processing and recycling. Some focus on the earlier stages: design and production of plastic products.

A whole value chain approach to the circular plastics economy is very important. While the majority of plastic waste management activities tend to focus on the use and end-of-life phases, more emphasis needs to be placed on design and manufacturing. This is where the problem of plastic waste begins.

Worldwide, attention is being directed towards designing simpler and standardized products that are easier to reuse and recycle.

Innovators crack the code

A Nigerian software company, Wecyclers, operates a rewards-for-recycling platform. It provides incentives for individuals and households in low-income communities to earn money and capture value from recyclable plastic waste.

Via the platform, waste collectors are connected to a fleet of locally collected waste trucks. They use these to collect waste from subscriber households. These households are also rewarded according to the amount of waste collected from them.

The waste collected is deposited at designated sites in the Lagos metropolis to be collected in bulk by recyclers. This provides materials for manufacturers who turn it into new goods such as tissue paper, bedding filling, plastic furniture, aluminum sheets and nylon bags.

The impact is significant on many levels. First, the Wecycler model simplifies the logistics of collection and sorting by connecting waste-generating households with waste collectors in their neighbourhood, at almost no cost to households. Second, it enables households not only to mitigate the public health risks associated with plastic waste accumulation and mismanagement, but also to generate income. Finally, the end-of-life phase in the plastic value chain extends through recycling and potential reuse.

In Uganda, Yo Waste, a technology start-up, has developed a mobile, cloud-based solution that connects waste generators with the nearest waste haulers in their communities. Yo Waste improves the efficiency of planning and waste collection. It also helps waste collection companies measure the productivity of their trucks and gives recyclers easier access to the plastic waste.

In Zambia, Recyclebot connects waste sellers with waste buyers via a crowdsourcing platform that aggregates waste by type and location. In fact, plastic waste producers dispose of their waste for free and waste buyers overcome the costs of sorting, transfer and storage.

While these are promising innovations, the biggest challenge is scaling. Things are slow on the continent. Startups in the recycling industry face additional challenges such as insufficient financing and an underdeveloped plastics market that offers limited opportunities for growth and income generation.

A significant part of the funds that start-up companies have access to is provided as grants from international and local organisations. Pure business investment is rare and political intervention is far behind.

What can be done

To accelerate the transition to a circular plastics economy, stakeholders from a spectrum of organizations must work together. They include NGOs, cooperatives, think tanks and community groups. The current approach to dealing with plastic waste on the continent remains fragmented and insufficiently coordinated. While efforts are being made to develop new ecosystems in many countries, key stakeholders are often missing.

African governments in particular have a key role to play. They must engage more in strategic investments in infrastructure, incentives and support for start-ups. African countries also need policy interventions to increase the market for circular plastic products at national and continental levels.

In another study, we argued that innovators need to tailor their strategies to create innovations that are functional and easy to use. This will make it easier for ordinary consumers and the public to accept them. In turn, it will help change consumption habits and expand the market for circular plastic products.

Digital innovators, as early adopters, are critical to driving change in the way the plastics economy operates across the continent. Their innovations also lead to knowledge exchange and cross-sector collaborations.

But they also face significant institutional challenges and infrastructural constraints that slow the pace of progress. By working together and pooling resources, stakeholders can achieve an impact that is much greater than the sum of their individual initiatives and contributions to a circular plastics economy in Africa.The conversation

Boy KoladeAssociate Professor, De Montfort University and Muyiwa Oyinlola, Associate Professor

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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