Technological ingenuity in African countries: how they are solving the problem of plastic waste

Tom Idle

Posted 2 days ago. About 6 minutes to read.

Image: Wecyclers

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Enabling a circular economy is a complex challenge that governments, communities and businesses around the world are struggling to solve. But as Dow’s work in Africa proves, solutions exist – and success comes when organizations and communities work together to create change rooted in the local context.

The continent of Africa has long been hailed as the “next big growth market” as its countries are home to some of the world’s youngest populations, who are expected to be the top consumers in the coming decades.

And in many cases, the continent’s ongoing development has become an accelerator of ingenuity rather than a hindrance, enabling these nations to circumvent systemic challenges with a scrappy entrepreneurial spirit. This so-called “leapfrogging” is the phenomenon of communities circumventing outdated Western ways to gain a competitive advantage. African nations have taken this approach with solar power, banking access, power grids and communications infrastructure. For example, when the governments of
Ethiopia at Nigeria failed to install telephone lines to connect communities, residents ignored the need for such infrastructure and went straight to cellular connection with the advent of mobile technology.

In the same vein, Africa is poised to tackle the challenges of circularity in new ways through local ingenuity and a culture of entrepreneurship.

A leap forward in waste management

So, could this overshoot mentality be applied to accelerate the transition to a circular economy in the developing world? Adwoa Coleman certainly think so. The chemical engineer has held positions in Africa and the United States for the past 10 years. In a recent role at
Dowshe has used her skills to find solutions to the challenges of waste collection, reuse and recycling as Africa Sustainability and Advocacy Manager for the company’s packaging and specialty plastics businesses.

“The main challenge in Africa, when it comes to circularity and sustainability, is that these concepts can be very abstract,” Adwoa said.
Sustainable Brands™. “A significant number of people in African countries live well below the poverty line – so these topics are not prioritized. Instead, people wonder where clean water will come from, if they have a shelter, what they can do to earn a living for themselves and their families.

However, many people in Africa recycle to support themselves. Millions of waste pickers make a living by collecting recyclable materials that can be reused or recycled. In the developed world, government-regulated waste management companies typically do this work – collecting waste from outside homes on certain days of the week. In sub-Saharan Africa, only about 50% of waste is treated in the same way. In places like Ghana and in Ethiopia, workers in the informal waste sector are key to waste management in the region.

Coleman’s role is to rally the resources of Dow and work with African entrepreneurs to harness their ingenuity and resilience to overcome shortcomings in the region’s waste management infrastructure. Partnerships in the field focus on integrating technology “without having to follow the movements of some of the learnings that other developed economies are facing in their journey towards circularity”.

An app to help waste pickers

Logistics plays a key role in determining the value of plastic waste. For example, transporting the material just an additional 2-3 kilometers may require enough fuel to replace the material’s value to waste pickers.

In Kenya, Dow has launched a pilot project to solve logistics problems by leveraging mobile systems and technologies. Dow’s IT team has developed an application that helps optimize logistics for picking up and collecting recyclable materials with similar technology to ride-sharing services. The company has tested the use of the app in Kenya with Mr. Green Africa.

Kenya has served as a beacon in the fintech space for developing and leveraging fintech for many years now, largely thanks to
M-Pesa
— a mobile banking system that bypasses the need for traditional banks and bank cards, and allows people to exchange and receive payment for waste.

“In Mr. Green’s current business model, registered waste pickers can go to an exchange point where they can sell their waste,” says Coleman. “Once the waste is weighed and inspected, they immediately receive payment via M-Pesa, based on the quantity and the advertised price.”

The pilot with Dow unlocked an additional collection mechanism to allow consumer participation through residential collections and recyclables collection, all controlled via an app: “It reduces the carbon footprint of logistics, reduces the time spent to move from place to place and also optimizes the collection frequency to ensure that a significant amount of material has been accumulated before the collector goes to collect something, so it is worth it” , she says.

Learn from others, lead by example

As policymakers and lawmakers around the world look to other countries for inspiration on how to solve the circularity challenge, Coleman wants to see more African countries lead the way in exploring the benefits of extended producer responsibility
(REP) — which obliges the waste producer to pay for and manage the collection and recycling of the waste. Applied in Africa, where governments often lack the resources to invest in waste management infrastructure, EPR has the potential for external funding to implement solid waste management systems that would enable a circular economy.

“The EPR could help unblock [circularity] in a way that is meaningful to the local context,” says Coleman. “It’s not about copying and pasting. This is to review what has been done, analyze the gaps and determine how to implement EPR locally.

How to solve a problem like flexible packaging

Unleashing value from more waste streams is a crucial part of the circularity puzzle. In many African countries, managing ubiquitous flexible packaging – widely used for thin, sealed plastic bags or pouches that pack everything from soap and water to washing powder – remains complex. Yet, compared to PET bottles, this type of flexible packaging is not an attractive waste to collect, as it can foul machinery and is in low demand at end of life.

Coleman and his team ran a project to specifically tackle this problem. In partnership with Omnik, Wecyclers and the Lagos Business School Sustainability CenterDow’s ReflexNG Project
pilot in Nigeria was designed to convert 300 million sachets of water sachets, which otherwise would have ended up in the environment or landfill, into raw ingredients for new products.

“We realized that to get the hoses back, we had to add value to them. We had to make people realize that by throwing away these used sachets, they were basically wasting money.

It worked; and the material – 100 million sachets to date – has started flowing back to Dow and Omnik, a converter in Nigeria, which has dedicated a line at its plant to further develop post-consumer recycled (PCR) resin capabilities. As a result, the quality of PCR is improved, so that it can be used for new products. For example, Dow works with a major brand that has pledged to ensure that its detergent pouches are made from 30% recycled plastic.

“They are happy with the results and will be bringing the products to market soon,” Coleman says. The Reflex project has now been extended to cover Egypt and Guineaas well.

The transition to a circular economy is a complex challenge that governments, communities and businesses around the world are struggling to solve. But as Dow’s work in Africa proves, solutions exist – and the best results are achieved when organizations and communities inspire each other and work together to create change rooted in the local context.

Bryce K. Locke