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Ideas & Debate

Circular economy key to a new deal for Africa's nature

Unilever East Africa CEO Justin Apsey, Mr Green co-founder Nicholas Smith and Environment chief administrative secretary Mohammed Elmi
From left: Unilever East Africa CEO Justin Apsey, Mr Green co-founder Nicholas Smith and Environment chief administrative secretary Mohammed Elmi during the launch of the plastic waste recycling project, dubbed U-Turn. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

At the recently concluded 17th Ordinary session of the Africa Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), all 54 African countries committed to addressing the key environmental challenges of our time, including climate change, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and plastic pollution.

The ministers further committed to institutionalising a circular economy, and a blue economy to support the implementation of the Africa Agenda 2063.

This commitment provides an excellent opportunity to shift away from traditional linear economies of make-use-dispose.

Plastic has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, but in that time, plastic has transformed everything from packaging to product design and retailing. Shockingly, we are staring at a scenario where we shall have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050 if the current wanton plastic pollution persists.

While only two out of the 10 river systems that carry 90 percent of the plastics that ends up in the ocean are found in Africa — The Nile and Niger —the continent’s increasing population and bulging economy have the potential to trigger a spike in plastic pollution if countries fail to fix their respective waste management systems.

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It should be noted that Africa has shown tremendous leadership and is now leading the world in plastic bag regulation — a total of 34 countries on the continent have total or partial bans on different forms of single use plastic items and packaging.

This leadership has now been bolstered by AMCEN’s commitment to supporting global action to address plastic pollution. The Durban Declaration identifies a new global agreement on plastic pollution that addresses the full life cycle of plastics, as a possible avenue to combat plastic pollution.

The commitment from all African countries gives a strong signal to the world and provides momentum to the calls for ambitious policy response to plastic pollution at international, regional and national levels.

These are all steps in the right direction, but there is still more to be done. These commitments need to be accompanied by tailor made financial investments to drive innovations for promoting circular economy in African countries – the surest way of realising multiple policy objectives of stalling biodiversity loss, bending the curve on nature loss, enhancing resource efficiency and stopping plastic leakage into the nature.

As home to half of the world’s fastest growing economies and seven of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Africa has the opportunity to demonstrate how economic development can be sustainable through innovations that build social and climate resilience and ensure people and nature thrive together.

For example, restoration of coral reefs and sand dunes not only protects against beach erosion but also can generate a number of co-benefits for tourism sector by enhancing opportunities for snorkeling, diving etc. With political will and determination, Africa can meet the growing demand for food, fuel, water and other resources working with nature, not against it while reducing leakage of waste, especially plastic whose presence in nature has reached crisis levels.

At the recent Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity, there was an unequivocal call for a New Deal for Nature and People. A deal that makes it socially, politically and economically unacceptable to sit back and watch the destruction of nature.

A deal underlaid by new ambitious targets to protect and restore nature for the benefit of people and the planet, setting the goal of zero loss of natural spaces, zero extinctions and halving the negative ecological impacts of production and consumption.

This New Deal for Nature and People gives Africa a chance to rewrite the past narrative by embracing circular economy principles — dissociating from non-renewable resources key among them fossil fuels, product redesign, embrace reuse models, considering material life cycle impacts, accountability across the value chain and upping recycling across all sectors of production and consumption.

Years from now, Africa’s forests, oceans and rivers can tell one of two stories. A story where humanity emptied them ruthlessly and shortsightedly while dumping into them waste or a story where we recognised how intertwined their health was with our own well being and restored them back to life.

The choice is ours. Let the story they tell be one of determination, hope, impact and circularity.

Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai said “There comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness... that time is now.” This is our time, Africa.

Ruhweza is Regional Director, Africa, WWF

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