Growing up in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1980s, Ossey Bernard Yapo picked up bread from the neighborhood bakeryusing a long fabric bag. And during family celebrations, he would dash off to the grocery store to refill glass bottles with soda. Life in Côte d’Ivoire has since changed dramatically. The reusable containers of decades past have been replaced by single-use plastic bags and bottles. While inexpensive, they often wind-up littering landscapes across the West African country of 26 million.
UN Environment Programme / E. Fdez / Terabithia Press
“University campuses, sports stadiums and streets in cities can at times be seen covered in white, with layers upon layers of water sachets,” said Yapo, a professor of environmental science who has spent two decades researching the effects of pollution. Yapo is one of a growing number of academics, entrepreneurs and state officials who are working to wean Côte d’Ivoire off single-use plastics, which the government has called “a silent catastrophe”.
The country’s commercial capital, Abidjan, alone produces over 280 tonnes of plastic waste a day, a haul that weighs as much as three fully loaded passenger jets. This single-use plastic is taking a heavy toll on the environment. According to Yapo, less than 10 per cent of plastic waste – about 20,000 tonnes – is collected for recycling. The remaining 90 per cent is buried in a local landfill or discharged into nature. “The people and the government can no longer ignore this,” says Yapo.
Côte d’Ivoire has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. The plastics industry employs approximately 10,000 people in over 40 companies and supports up to 20,000 informal jobs, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Yapo says that Côte d’Ivoire imports around 300,000 tonnes of plastic annually, much of this single-use products, while additional plastics are produced domestically.
A mounting threat
Plastic waste is not only a scar on the beauty of this forested and coastal country. For those living across Côte d’Ivoire’s 566km coastline and its 300km of tree-fringed lagoons, plastic pollution threatens both fishing and tourism, harming crucial marine life and making beaches unappealing to travellers. It is also a public health hazard. Blocking drainage systems, plastic make floods worse, a growing threat affecting tens of thousands. Consumers of attiéké – a staple couscous dish of fermented cassava sold in Ivorian markets – are at risk of exposure to pollutants migrating from the polythene plastic bags in which they are sold, shows a study by Yapo and others.
Microplastics, a public health hazard
Absorption of microplastics – plastic particles less than 5mm long – similarly happens with beverages in thin sachets exposed to the sun. UNEP finds such particles can cause changes to human genetics, brain development, respiratory problems and fertility issues, especially among women.
Just over a decade ago, the government decided to act. In 2013, it declared a ban on the importation, production, use and sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags. Polluters can face up to six months of imprisonment and up to 1 million CFA francs (US$1,670) in fines. Only few exemptions were made, despite reported pressures from investors and traders.
A visit today to Abidjan reveals progress: where single-use plastic bags once were provided in pharmacies, bakeries, gas stations and big supermarkets, one finds paper bags and reusable bags, notes the Ivorian government. Yet the ban has had limited results in the sprawling informal sector; street vendors and market sellers continue to operate as before. Other African countries face similar challenges. Under the Bamako Convention, African states have agreed to strengthen management of hazardous waste, including plastics.
Pollution rates, however, continue to soar, a problem encountered by much of the world. Humanity produces 430 million tonnes of plastics each year, two-thirds of which are in products which soon become waste, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Pathways beyond the ban
To tackle the plastic pollution crisis, experts say the world needs to overhaul the linear economic model that governs plastics and that perpetuates a throwaway culture. A shift to a circular economy is needed – one which eliminates unnecessary production and consumption, avoids negative impacts on ecosystems and human health, keeps products and materials in the economy and safely collects and disposes of waste that cannot be economically processed.
«There is no single solution to the plastic pollution crisis,” said Rose Mwebaza, Director of UNEP’s Africa Office. “The good news is that all the technological solutions needed have already been invented, with a wave of innovative companies and forward-looking governments joining forces to make plastic pollution history.
That process is playing out in Côte d’Ivoire. The Centre Ivoirian Anti-Pollution is monitoring pollution hotspots. CIAPOL is also in charge of implementing environmental regulations, including the decree of 2013 banning the production, import, marketing, possession and use of plastic bags.
As well, UNICEF and partners are building a unique factory to convert waste into durable plastic bricks. Every year, the factory will process 9,600 tonnes of plastic waste. “Working on this project, surrounded by young enthusiasts, is a real pleasure. [We are] transforming schools into green schools, through installing solar panels, handwashing stations and toilets for a healthy environment,» the Ivorian activist Andy Costa has said.
El Assaad Abdul Rahmane is the founder of Recyclage.CI, an Abidjan recycling company. He says concerns about plastic pollution often fall to the wayside in communities facing more immediate problems, such as hunger and unemployment.
“It is important for the government to support companies that engage in the circular economy and recycling, as this can generate jobs and income for populations,” says Rahmane, who has developed a machine to transform plastic waste into pyrolytic oil, which can be used to power generators.
Research shows that shifting to a circular economy by 2040 could create 700,000 additional jobs globally and improve livelihoods for millions of workers in the informal sector, largely in developing countries.
The way forward
Collaboration with businesses to promote both growth and circularity is integral to events during World Environment Day 2023, hosted by Côte d’Ivoire. An awareness-raising caravan will drive through Abidjan, while entrepreneurial solutions to plastic pollution will be exhibited during the Africa CEO Forum, a gathering of corporate leaders.
On the regional level, Côte d’Ivoire is one of 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States that in 2020 agreed to ban plastic packaging by 2025. Côte d’Ivoire’s plastic exports are already falling; in 2017, the country shipped out 128,000 tonnes of the material, a number that dropped by more than 30 per cent in 2018. Yapo links this change to plastic bans in key export countries, such as Mali and Burkina Faso.
Globally, the country has welcomed the historic decision to end plastic pollution, taken during the 5th UN Environment Assembly in 2022. The Ivorian government has since participated in talks in Senegal and Uruguay aimed at forging an international agreement for limiting plastic waste.
Sarr Papa About Ba is an engineer whose start-up, SN Kanian Technologies, specializes in recycling plastic waste into tables, benches, bollards, and more. He hopes the global plastics agreement will result in cross-border sharing of technologies and financing waste management projects, which he calls key to creating a circular economy for plastics.