By Aimable Twahirwa
Environmental experts gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, have urged African governments to take advantage of ‘circular plastic opportunities’ to lower gas emissions and stop environmental degradation. They were speaking to IPS on the sides of the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA).
The key approach to a circular economy for developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, according to experts, should focus on addressing plastic pollution by reducing the discharge of plastics into the environment by covering all stages of the plastic life cycle. Plastic waste would be reduced through restorative and regenerative projects using the material without allowing leakage into the natural environment.
Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), outlined critical steps on halting plastic pollution, stopping harmful chemicals in agriculture, and deploying nature to find sustainable development solutions by 2024.
“Ambitious action to beat plastic pollution should track the lifespan of plastic products – from source to sea – should be legally binding, accompanied by support to developing countries, backed by financing mechanisms, tracked by strong monitoring mechanisms, and incentivizing all stakeholders – including the private sector,” Andersen said.
The main challenge is how countries should move towards a more circular economy that benefits from reducing environmental pressure. Scientists stress the need for most African governments to strengthen the science and knowledge base on plastic pollution and improve their policies.
Mohammed Abdelraouf, chair of Scientific and Technological Community Major Group UNEP, told IPS that while there are many solutions to plastic pollution, research should complement these efforts by developing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
“It is important for governments to make decisions that stimulate innovations,” he said.
According to the draft resolution being debated at UNEA, signatories to an internationally legally binding agreement would commit to reducing plastic pollution across the entire lifecycle of plastics, from preventive measures in the upstream part of the lifecycle to downstream ones addressing waste management. Rwanda and Peru drew up the resolution.
For a smooth implementation and compliance by stakeholders, the UN agency in charge of environmental protection is engaged with stakeholders, including governments, the business community, researchers, and civil society. The engagement aims to understand priorities, challenges, what’s needed to foster a plastics circular economy that works for industry, and meets environmental and social objectives.
Experts describe private sector support as crucial in managing plastic waste. Some business community members will benefit during implementation from grant financing to encourage the move towards the circular economy.
With different industries across the plastic value chain now facing a shifting dynamic, Andersen company shareholders and consumers are paying attention to the pollution challenges arising from their investments and decisions.
For example, one waste management initiative has supported public-private investment projects in three African countries, including Algeria, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, to advance sustainable waste management and the circular economy.
Margaret Munene, a Kenyan woman entrepreneur and chair of Business and Industry Major Group of UNEP, told delegates that the successful reduction of plastic pollution requires testing solutions.
“The private sector remains critical to innovative and technological solutions to address plastic waste,” she said.
Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment, Espen Barth Eide, has initiated a project to identify requirements and options for designing a science-policy interface. The project aims to develop different proposals on how to create the interface to operate as effectively as possible, especially for developing countries.
“Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic of its own. Paradoxically, plastics are among the most long-lasting products we humans have made – and frequently, we still just throw it away. Plastic is a product that can be used again, and then over and over again, if we move it into a circular economy. I am convinced that the time has come for a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution,” Eide said.
Bérangère Abba, French Secretary of State in charge of Biodiversity is convinced that for increased recycling of plastic waste to be legally enforceable, it is important to negotiate to bring contentious parties together to address emissions.
“There is still a need to have an independent science-policy interface that would help monitor the progress and priorities of this ambitious goal dedicated to enabling a circular economy for plastics,” she told IPS.
Beyond plastics, experts say other major interventions needed concern the design of buildings that make efficient use of limited materials and use building processes that are less energy-intensive to lower greenhouse gas emissions and stop environmental degradation.
Official estimates show that Africa is the second most populous continent globally, and its urban population is expected to nearly triple by 2050 to 1.34 billion.
It’s estimated that between 60% and 80% of the built environment needed by 2050 to support this growing population has yet to be laid.