How Africa is dealing with the environmental impact of packaging

Africa has one of the most diverse food and cuisine markets on the planet, with the industry projected to reach $1 trillion by 2030. However, with the increase in diversity and interest in food across the continent, many countries are beginning to experience the impact and fallout of such a booming industry. Here Polly Duffee, general manager at Advanta South Africa, an international packaging manufacturer, examines the impact of food packaging across Africa.

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While plastic and Styrofoam are popular packaging materials across South Africa and other African countries, they create a huge problem for waste disposal because they very difficult to recycle or destroy. The impact of packaging is beginning to be recognised and acted upon by many governments, industry representatives and manufacturers across Africa. Even the ProPak Africa exhibition promoted sustainability as the core focus of its 2017 event.

Zimbabwe

Earlier in 2017, Zimbabwe’s Environment Management Agency ordered an immediate ban on the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) containers, ordering them to be replaced with recyclable or biodegradable ones. Anyone found breaking the ban could be fined up to $5 000.

A report from Voice of America (VOA) says that one reason EPS has been banned in Zimbabwe is because it emits toxic chemicals when burned — the routine process for waste disposal in Zimbabwe. Additionally, the containers are discarded as litter throughout the streets of large cities like Harare, which inevitably clogs drainage systems and causes flooding.

EPS is not biodegradable and can take up to a million years to break down, meaning it can take a heavy toll on the environment. The waste is also often contaminated with food or drink, making it difficult to clean because EPS is 95 per cent air and therefore very porous. As a result, it is very difficult to recycle, meaning many governments avoid doing so.

Kenya

Economic reforms have meant that the overall economic development and levels of consumer spending have recently risen in Kenya, improving the disposable incomes of the middle-classes. As a result, the import of plastic materials has seen steady growth for the last two years as the demand for plastic and packaged goods soars.

Additionally, it is estimated that 100 million plastic bags are given out by Kenyan supermarkets every year, resulting in clogged sewers, damaged soil and risk to animals that often consume the waste.

However, in the summer of 2017, Kenya implemented the world’s toughest plastic bag ban to tackle the increase of plastic waste in the country. Kenyan’s producing, selling or using plastic bags will risk imprisonment of up to four years, or fines of $40,000.

While some industry commentators were against the ban, many say it will give rise to new businesses and traders selling canvas bags, baskets and tote bags. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in Kenya also urges retailers and shoppers to look for alternative packaging materials like paper, aluminium or bamboo.

Across the continent

Over ten other African countries have implemented taxes, partial or full bans on plastic bags, including Morocco and Mauritania. The East African community has also considered a regional ban on the product.

However, many other countries on the continent are yet to realise the full effect of their plastic usage. For instance, Ethiopia has emerged as a major importer of plastic goods since its adoption of free market economy policy in 1992, whereas Uganda is host to one of the largest plastics industry manufacturers. Even smaller countries like Mozambique and Tanzania are playing a part in Africa’s significant plastic problem.

Countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya have taken drastic action with their respective bans and many other countries may begin to follow. With the growth in the food and beverage industry forecast across Africa in the next few years, it is important for manufacturers, retailers and consumers to consider the type of packaging and waste they are contributing to through their products and purchases.