African digital innovators are turning plastic waste into value – but there are gaps

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

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

A significant portion of the plastic that ends up on African shores is produced in developed and industrialized countries. In 2010, it was estimated that nearly 4.4 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste were found in the oceans and seas off the African coast every year. A 2022 estimate put that number at 17 million tonnes.

A growing number of NGOs and innovators across the continent are taking up the challenge. They develop digital solutions to reduce the production of plastic waste and encourage the reuse and recycling of plastic products. Increasingly, African tech hubs are integrating environmental sustainability into their business models.

In our recent article, we highlight ongoing efforts and innovations in what is known as the plastics value chain. This includes four phases, from the design of plastic products to manufacturing, use and end of life.

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

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

Around the world, attention is turning to designing simpler, standardized products that are easier to recycle and reuse.

Innovators crack the code

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

Via the platform, waste collectors are connected to a fleet of locally assembled waste transport vehicles. They use them to collect waste from subscriber households. These households are also rewarded based on the amount of waste collected from them.

The collected waste is deposited in designated places in the metropolis of Lagos, to be collected in bulk by recyclers. This provides materials for manufacturers to make new items like tissue paper, bedding stuffing, plastic furniture, aluminum foil, and nylon bags.

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

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

In Zambia, Recyclebot connects waste sellers to waste buyers through a crowdsourcing platform that aggregates waste by type and location. This is because plastic waste producers dispose of their waste for free and waste buyers overcome the costs of separation, transfer and storage.

While these are promising innovations, the main challenge is scaling up. It’s slow on the mainland. Startups in the recycling industry face additional challenges, such as insufficient funding and an underdeveloped plastics market that offers limited opportunities for growth and revenue generation.

A significant portion of the funds that start-ups access are provided in the form of grants from international and local organizations. Pure commercial investments are rare and political interventions are far behind the curve.

What can be done

To accelerate the transition to a circular plastic economy, stakeholders from a wide range of organizations need to work together. They include NGOs, cooperatives, think tanks and community groups. The current approach to tackling plastic waste on the continent remains scattered and insufficiently coordinated. While efforts are made to develop new ecosystems in many countries, key stakeholders are often absent.

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

In another study, we argued that innovators need to adapt their strategies to create functional and easy-to-use innovations. This will facilitate their acceptance by ordinary consumers and the general public. This, in turn, will help change consumer habits and expand the market for circular plastic products.

Digital innovators, as early adopters, are key to driving change in how the plastics economy works across the continent. Their innovations also lead to knowledge exchange and cross-industry collaborations.

However, they also face significant institutional challenges and infrastructural limitations that slow the pace of progress. By working together and pooling resources, stakeholders can achieve an impact far greater than the sum of their individual initiatives and contributions towards a circular plastic economy in Africa.

Bryce K. Locke