The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the world economy, including throughout Africa.  Among the global reflections in its aftermath, whether related to the current virus or otherwise, are the need for rigorous sanitation practices and the shared vulnerabilities we all have to unhealthy (and environmentally harmful) practices anywhere.

Thoughts will soon turn from the medical crisis to the economic crisis, where a need to kickstart new revenue-generating activities will arise.  And this is where consideration would be well to turn towards local and regionally-replicable, industrial development for resources already at hand – namely waste, including plastics, the harbinger of the last global crisis.

Africa’s Waste Challenges

Any discussion of African waste management must first acknowledge that significant data gaps exist in fully mapping and delineating all material flows, at least when viewed on a continental basis.  An in-depth 2016 World Bank waste management report does provide some clarity as to the opportunity.

For Sub-Saharan Africa alone:

  • the current population is over 1 billion and it’s one of the fastest growing regions of the world;
  • more than half of the world’s population growth is anticipated to occur in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050;
  • the region generated 174 million tonnes of waste in 2016, at a (relatively low) rate of 0.46 kilogram per capita per day;
  • waste generation is expected to more than quadruple by 2050;
  • overall waste collection rates are about 44 percent – much higher in urban areas; and
  • waste is predominantly openly dumped though there has been a growth formal waste management, including landfills in cities.

When it comes to plastics, roughly 8.6 percent of all Sub-Saharan waste generated in 2016 is plastic waste with expectation that both the relative proportion and overall aggregate of plastic waste will grow exponentially in the coming years with yet more urbanization.   In short, the volumes which make collective action on materials efficiency and secondary market development viable.

Agenda 2063 Stresses Self-Determination

Officially adopted in 2015 by the AU Assembly, sets out a strategic framework that aims to deliver on the goals of inclusive and sustainable development, through pan-African unity, self-determination, and collective prosperity with a “people-centred” development.

Agenda 2063 has 14 ‘flagship’ projects that have been identified as central to accelerating Africa’s economic growth and development including affirmations in support of collective action on environment and industrial development:

  • Transform, grow and industrialise our economies through beneficiation and value addition of natural resources; and
  • Act with a sense of urgency on climate change and the environment.

AU action on determining which plastics are to enter Africa and how they might serve these Agenda 2063 goals fits neatly within overall mandate and can be done without lengthy lead times or macro-level capital investment.  It would be a near-term achievement for the AU.

Durban Declaration: Frameworks for a continental transition to Circular Economy

The African Ministerial Conference on Environment issued the Durban Declaration in November 2019 as the first continent-wide policy that specifically includes support for resource recovery and circular economy, including:

  • Recognising the value of the circular economy as a framework for economic development and job creation by improving the production and consumption of goods & services, reducing the generation of waste & pollution, reducing dependency on natural resources and reducing pollution;
  • Aims to increase awareness of the circular economy through the development of policy, regulatory and institutional arrangements;
  • Encourages the private sector and other actors to invest in circular economy enterprises; and
  • Commits African countries to accelerate their transition to a circular economy as part of Agenda 2063 through capacity building programmes and other initiatives.

A need for a viable circular economy strategy for plastics has certainly supplanted e-waste as the most pressing global resource recovery challenge.  Unlike electronics, however, plastics provides the AU with greater autonomy for an Africa-specific materials strategy.

Many AU Countries Already Promoting Resource Recovery Domestically

A number of African countries have commenced resource recovery policy and regulatory initiatives, some which pre-date both the Durban Declaration and the launch of Agenda 2063:

Country Name of policy & year Implementing agencies Short description
Ethiopia Climate Resilient Green Economy (2011) Ministry of Environment Green economy based on four pillars: Agriculture; Forestry; Power (renewable energy for domestic and regional markets); Transport, industrial sectors and buildings.
Ghana Ghana Goes for Green Growth (2010) Ministry of Environment Sustainable development and equitable low carbon economic growth
Kenya Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) on Circular Economy Solid Waste Management Approach for Urban Areas in Kenya.    DRAFT – National Sustainable Waste Management Policy (2018) Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Kenya and UNDP Low Emission Capacity Building (LECB) Programme   Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources                 Ministry of Environment and Forestry Diversion of waste from disposal sites towards recycling          Ban on “the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging” as of August 2017 – two categories of bags: the carrier bag, a “bag constructed with handles, and with or without gussets,” and the flat bag, a “bag constructed without handles, and with or without gussets.”   This   policy will advance Kenya towards a more sustainable and circular economy. It   will move the country towards realization of the Zero Waste principle, whereby waste generation is minimized or prevented.
Namibia Green Economic Coalition Dialogue (2011)   National Solid Waste Management Strategy (2017) Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare   Ministry of Environment and Tourism Economic development, job creation and CO2 reduction   To strengthen the institutional, organisational and legal framework for solid waste management, including capacity development.
Nigeria Extended Producer Responsibility Programme (2013) National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency Minimisation of industrial waste and promotion of recycling (specifically around electronic waste)
Rwanda Ministerial instruction on the use and manufacturing of plastic bags in Rwanda – Plastic Bag Law 57 (2008); updated – Law relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation, use and sale of plastic carry bags and single-use plastic items, Article 3 N° 17/2019 du 10/08/2019   National Environment and Climate Change Policy (2019) Minister of Land, Environment, Forestry, Water and Natural Resources.                Ministry of Environment Cabinet decision of 18/02/2004 prohibiting the importation and manufacturing of some plastic bags in Rwanda.  Update: Law relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation, use and sale of plastic carry bags and single-use plastic items       The strategic policy direction designed to guide the environment and climate change (national and global linkages)
South Africa National Environmental Management Act (1998) (includes various updates and amendments)   Circular Economy Guideline and Briefing Note (in development) Department of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry (DEFF)     United Nations Environment Programme and the South African national Department of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry (DEFF) Minimisation of waste, pollution and use of natural resources     As part of SAG focused on circular economy for sustainable consumption and production

What is apparent from these (and other) resource recovery activities across Africa is both the recognition of local industrial development opportunities tied to circular economy and the domestically-focused manner in which they are currently being pursued across the AU.   

Circular economy initiatives inherently need the economies of scale only available through multi-lateral cohesive action and these patchwork initiatives can easily give rise to an AU-wide programme, including on plastics.

Switch Green a Model for Environmental Coordination

A long standing impediment to meaningful commitments on collaboration in many regions globally, including parts of Africa, has been the instability and ultimately limited success of regional coalitions historically.  The economic, social and environment impetus of Switch Green Africa, a 2014 revival of the regional coordination model, highlights its enduring viability.

Specifically, the SWITCH Africa Green programme is designed to assist 7 (first phase) countries of Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa and Uganda in a transition towards an “inclusive green economy based on sustainable consumption and production patterns.”

Most notably, the programme focuses on:

  • green financing,
  • enabling policies and standards,
  • circular practices,
  • awareness and skills on eco-entrepreneurship, and
  • innovative solutions,

and tangible gains have been achieved in waste management initiatives, mostly at the national level and mainly in response to the waste stream materials their members have been compelled to manage.  A good foundation upon which materials self-determination might ultimately be built.

All of these core programme constituencies would neatly fit a comprehensive strategy on plastics, including its material composition, supply, management and recovery for secondary markets.  Further, there can be tangible, near-term gains in many, if not all, of the Switch Green aspirational outcomes, including environmental protection, notably growth and jobs creation, poverty reduction, economic diversification, and income generation.

Sustained Global Efforts on Plastics Creates Opportunity

Questions might be asked why plastics should be an immediate focal point for AU coordination, when every waste stream managed in the AU presents sociological and environmental challenges.   One answer might be money.  

After the Basel Convention amendments declaring virtually all post-consumer plastics a “hazardous waste”, there has been a tangible injection of development money made available in Africa and elsewhere to be spent at various entry points in addressing the problem.  Plastic pollution will (it might be hoped) soon re-emerge as the global priority and there is a financial impetus across a number of African countries to act.

SUPs as AU Entry Point on Plastics

The European Union’s decision to mandate national law across the member states on Single-Use Plastics (SUPs) by 2021 will have a profound effect upon international supply chains well beyond Europe, including as they extend into AU countries.  International business, of course, chafes at regional product particularism and will seek to extend homogeneous SUP offerings wherever financially viable.

The EU SUP Directive itself is a broad-ranging materials and waste management program (and not merely a set of bans as commonly misrepresented), explicitly designed for and built upon the existing infrastructural and socio-economic conditions within Europe.  Embedded within the Directive are innumerable implicit and explicit assumptions and policy decisions which would not be wholly shared by AU countries upon any serious examination.

But just as the EU itself found the target SUPs to be the easiest entry point in the regulation of plastics, so too will the AU likely find SUPs its first best option to impose regional/continental requirements on plastics management reflecting its own policy determinations.   Otherwise, those decisions will be made for them and that imposed plastics regime will only expand to other products/uses over time.  

Just Where are African Countries on Regulating SUP?

A 2018 United Nations Environmental Programme study, entitled, Africa Waste Management Outlook, includes a survey of current SUP laws across Africa.  The findings affirm the opportunity for a coordinated approach: 

–         only 29 countries out of 54 had any SUP laws – which meant that neighbouring countries which share eco-systems, including marine environments, have disparate approaches to the same contaminating material;

–         of the 29 with SUP laws, only 2 extended beyond plastic bag restrictions;

–         the plastic bags restrictions applied divergent standards as to the material, thickness or purposes which were restricted;

–         many countries had a form of biodegradable exemption for plastic bag restrictions but the efficacy of this position is not clear:

  • what, if any, performance standards have been required to satisfy the “biodegradable” exemption?
  • are any such performance standards proven in the environments of those countries imposing such standards?  
  • are such standards commonly adopted, at least regionally?
  • is anything planned for this plastic bag material beyond landfilling?
  • could alternative exemptions create feedstocks for local industry?

–  some of the restrictions are only at a sub-national level, limiting their efficacy.  

A notable exception to these country-specific SUP laws is the East African Legislative Assembly regional ban on polythene bags.   This is a useful example of collective action on limiting environmental impacts from harmful materials, perhaps leading to the further step of promoting alternative material which can also benefit local industry. 

Convergence Demands Action on SUPs

The post-COVID need for economy stimulus, the international funding of plastics pollution initiatives in various parts of Africa, the clear mandate for AU action under Agenda 2063 and the Durban Declaration and the impending SUP Directive makes now the time for the AU to develop its own plastics strategy – with SUPs as its first priority.

Sally-Anne Käsner is Director of Circular-Vision and a member of the African Circular Economy Network (ACEN). ACEN’s vision is to build a restorative African economy that generates well-being and prosperity inclusive of all its people through new forms of economic production and consumption which maintain and regenerate its environmental resources.


Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm's Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations. Mr. Cocker was recently appointed the first Sustainability Officer of the International Bar Association Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on environmental issues and has authored numerous publications including recent publications in the Environment and Climate Change Law Review, Detritus – the Official Journal of the International Waste Working Group, Chemical Watch, Circular Economy: Global Perspectives published by Springer, and in the upcoming Yale University Journal of Industrial Ecology’s special issue on Material Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation. Mr. Cocker maintains a blog focused upon international resource recovery issues at


Sally-Anne Käsner is Director of Circular-Vision ( and a member of the African Circular Economy Network ( Sally-Anne's main focus since July 2018 has been to assist companies / organizations to transition to a circular economy. The intention is to understand the core business and the value chain to assess where the most appropriate point of entry is to start making a transition to circularity. She has been an environmental consultant since the end of 2003 and her current assignments involve a myriad of projects including resource efficiency and cleaner production studies, environmental auditing, waste characterizations, development and implementation of environmental management systems and the development of operational materials management plans. A background in waste management and many years in the sustainability consulting environment, has provided a sound base from which to work.