End Plastic Pollution

Solving Africa’s waste problem takes both governments and activists

Africa’s trash is piling up, with nowhere to go.

In South Africa alone, more than a million tons of plastic are thrown away every year, and Africa’s inadequate waste management and recycling infrastructure can’t handle the load. Waste in Africa often overflows onto streets and shores, spreading disease and disarray across the continent.

To mitigate the pollution, governments have imposed plastic bans. In fact, 46% of all African countries have plastic bans, making Africa the continent with the highest percentage of national plastic bans in the world. Despite this legislation, Africa remains the second-most polluted continent on the planet. 

But, like so many environmental problems, one solution can’t solve everything. Individual activists, therefore, are taking matters into their own hands, founding organizations and bringing their communities together to change the culture around waste in Africa.  

“People are very interested in taking care of the environment,” said activist Isatou Ceesay. In 1997, Ceesay and four other women founded the N’Jau Women’s Group, a cooperative of about 80 women that makes and sells dried fruit, batik fabric, handbags made of plastic and other products. 

Ceesay calls Africa’s trash problem a “chain link,” connecting it to education, economics and health. As trash piles up, for example, diseases more easily spread. Polluted pileups especially threaten children, who are more prone to playing in the trash and more vulnerable to disease. Many children contract potentially fatal diarrhea from their exposure to trash. 

Mosquitos also swarm these piles of trash, making waste piles breeding grounds for other deadly diseases like malaria, which killed more than 400,000 people in 2018. Children accounted for two-thirds of these malarial deaths. 

Ceesay and other organizations are trying to tackle these problems through education, especially for women and children. 

“The problem comes when you don’t know how to manage your waste,” said Ceesay. “To end this problem, it’s a lot of educating people to connect it to their own life.” 

This investment in education is one of research organization Project Drawdown’s most impactful climate solutions. The organization recently ranked empowering women and girls in developing countries as the second of 76 solutions for curbing global warming at 2 degrees Celsius. 

Many women and girls, before proper training, think the most effective thing to do with trash is to burn it, said Ceesay. By repurposing this trash, however, communities can not only cleanup their streets — and avoid the disease that comes with stagnant waste — they can also reduce their carbon footprint. At the same time, they’re exploiting economic opportunity.

In Tanzania, for example, young people converted plastic bags into mattresses, selling these mattresses for a profit and distributing them to people in need. Ceesay and many others have gone through a training program through the Women Initiative Gambia. The organization teaches women to craft wallets, bags and balls for children from the reclaimed plastic bags and empowers them to tackle their communities’ waste problems.

Other education initiatives across the continent, most notably from efforts by United Nations Environment Programme, are changing the conversations about waste management and encouraging collaboration between government, organizations and communities to fight plastic pollution. 

Another way of handling Africa’s pollution problem is through cleanups. Like education, cleanups not only tackle waste — they also instill a sense of community, respect and knowledge for the environment. 

Zimbabwe is leading the charge in cleanups, with President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa declaring last summer that the first Friday of every month be a national cleanup day. And many youths are taking him up on the challenge: Last month, the community of Chinotimba hosted a cleanup with 600 participants, most of whom were young. 

“These cleanups raise awareness and called upon leaders and communities to stop pollution and ensure environmental sustainability,” said Earth Day Network’s Zimbabwe director, Jean-Betrand Mhandu, who took part in the cleanup. “African youth are underlining the importance of zero emissions globally.”

Plastic bans without enforcement — which many countries struggle with —are only so effective. Individual activists, as well as collective efforts by organizations and communities, can meanwhile mitigate this pollution crisis while mobilizing for the environment.

“Youth are channeling their power and resources to… rehabilitate our planet, ensuring the security of communities in their fight against climate change,” said Mhandu. 

Join Earth Day Network’s Great Global Cleanup campaign and find a cleanup in your area. And on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — April 22 — take to the streets to protect our environment.