Microplastic crisis: Can we truly have a plastic-free future in Africa?


Microplastic crisis: Can we truly have a plastic-free future in Africa?


In recent times, Africa’s plastic production has been consistently rising, now accounting for 5% of the global plastic output. Plastics have become an integral part of life across the continent, widely used in sectors like packaging, clothing, telecommunications, and transport. This increase can be attributed to plastics’ durability, lightweight nature, and cost-effectiveness, leading to a shift away from traditional materials like ceramics, metals, and wood. However, this growing reliance on plastics is not without significant environmental consequences, contributing to worsening climate issues. One of the major challenges facing Africa in this regard is inadequate waste management. The continent, despite its substantial role in plastic production, is grappling with how to effectively handle plastic waste.


Current studies reveal that a staggering 80–90% of plastic waste in Africa is not properly disposed of, resulting in severe pollution of oceans and rivers both within and surrounding the continent. By 2030, it’s estimated that the volume of plastic waste in Africa will double, reaching 165 million tonnes, with countries like Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia leading this surge. This escalating plastic pollution positions Africa as the second most polluted region in the world, following Asia. It’s a concerning reality, with the continent emerging as a major consumer of plastics that eventually break down into environmentally damaging microplastics. 



Microplastics, tiny particles between 100 nanometers and 5 millimeters, are becoming a major environmental issue, especially in Africa. Though often invisible to the naked eye, these particles result from the breakdown of larger plastic items. 


Over the last decade, global concern has grown about their impact on marine ecosystems. They slip through water filters, ending up in oceans and lakes, and are often mistaken for food by marine life. Microplastics are found everywhere, from mountain lakes to ocean depths, and even in common items like table salt, beer, and tap water.  


Without realizing it, we are eating microplastics too; it is estimated that the average person unknowingly ingests the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastics each year. In Africa, where a third of the population lives in extreme poverty and often relies on river water due to inadequate infrastructure, this issue is even more severe. Africa’s heavy dependence on agriculture intensifies the problem. Microplastics are not only harming marine life, leading to a reduction in food sources, but are also entering our food chain when we consume seafood. These plastics are pervasive, with studies revealing that even bottled water can contain up to tens of thousands of microplastic particles per litre.


Given the global reliance on bottled water, the total intake of microplastics is alarmingly high. While the full spectrum of health effects due to microplastics is still under investigation, early research indicates potential risks like oxidative stress, inflammation, and DNA damage. Although the direct impact on human health is still uncertain, the environmental damage and contribution to climate change caused by microplastics are undeniable.


Microplastics and their role in climate change 


Recent research has uncovered a more profound link between microplastics, and climate change than previously understood. When plastics break down under sunlight and transform into microplastics, they emit potent greenhouse gases, notably methane and ethylene, which are significant contributors to climate change. 


Here are some crucial ways in which microplastics are impacting global climate change: 


  • In marine ecosystems, microplastics disrupt the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide. As they break down, these plastics release substances that reduce the ocean’s carbon sequestration capacity, leading to higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere. This process aggravates the greenhouse effect and accelerates global warming.  


  • The incorrect disposal and poor management of plastic waste, including microplastics, result in methane emissions. This greenhouse gas, known for its high potency, is often produced in landfills where plastic waste accumulates, and organic materials decompose anaerobically. 


  • Microplastics threaten various ecosystems, impacting biodiversity and upsetting ecological balances. This disruption, particularly in aquatic habitats, can lead to the release of carbon stored in these ecosystems, thereby influencing climate change.  


Microplastics and Recycling 


The relationship between microplastics and recycling is becoming a critical issue. While recycling is often promoted as a key solution to plastic pollution, recent findings suggest it might be inadvertently contributing to the microplastics problem. The recycling process involves sorting, breaking down, and then reshaping plastic waste. A crucial stage in this process is washing the plastic to eliminate impurities. Yet, this step can actually amplify microplastic concentrations, as the plastic’s breakdown during recycling releases these tiny particles into the wash water, which then contaminates water systems and the environment. Studies from Scotland indicate that up to 6-13% of plastic entering recycling facilities could turn into microplastics due to actions like chopping and washing. 


This discovery casts doubts on the effectiveness of recycling as a comprehensive solution to plastic pollution. Many experts now argue that the true solution might not lie in recycling or ocean cleanups, but rather in significantly cutting plastic production. This presents a paradox where recycling, aimed at environmental protection, might be unintentionally worsening a different environmental threat. It’s a bitter irony that efforts to recycle plastics, intended to benefit the environment, could be contributing to a more severe ecological issue.


The idea of completely eliminating plastics, though environmentally sound, faces economic hurdles due to our deep dependence on them. Also, ceasing recycling activities could lead to job losses in the environmental sector. This scenario presents a complex challenge: finding the right balance between managing plastics, recycling, and environmental protection. The solution demands a thoughtful approach, weighing both environmental and economic considerations. 


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