Tonnes of plastic end up and persist for long periods in the environment, with hazardous effects on the health and well-being of people and the planet. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Today, Monday 5 June is World Environment Day, a day set aside by the United Nations to encourage awareness and action for the protection of the environment every other passing year.

This year, the theme for World Environment Day 2023 will focus on solutions to plastic pollution under the campaign #BeatPlasticPollution.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) says the world is being inundated by plastic waste. More than 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, half of which is designed to be used only once.

With 1.3 billion people living in Africa as of 2018 (16 per cent of the world’s population), Africa produces five per cent. It consumes four per cent of global plastic volumes (according to 2015 data by the UNEP).

Huge amounts of plastic end up and persist for long periods in the environment, with hazardous effects on the health and well-being of people and the planet.

The main driver of these worsening harms is almost an exponential and still accelerating growth in global production and consumption of plastics. With projected population growth, urbanisation and shift in consumption patterns, the challenge is likely to be exacerbated.

Of the approximately 172 million tonnes of plastics consumed in Africa, less than 10 per cent is recycled. In fact, an estimated 19 to 23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers and seas with devastating effects on society, economy and the environment.

So bad is the situation that in 2019, the  African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) that was held in Durban in South Africa – emphasised the need to address plastic pollution at a continentwide scale, with all African member states supporting a declaration calling for global action on plastic pollution.

As we focus on efforts to beat plastic pollution, we are not oblivious that the war against plastic pollution is more than just about riding off eyesore garbage from our neighbourhoods.

The challenge is also gendered

Instead, like many of the development challenges that we seek to address, plastic pollution is intricately linked to many other sectors. Furthermore, the challenge is also gendered and affects women and men differently.

Often, women also get more exposed to micro-plastic wastes than men. In Uganda, for example, eight in ten people who collect plastic waste are women and thus exposed to the dangers of pervasive micro-plastic wastes on their bodies.

Plastics’ impacts on fisheries lead to the reduction of fish which affects fisherfolk's ability to meet the food needs of their families, with disproportional effects on women and children.

The problem is more compounded for female-headed households that rely on the fish trade. Besides plastic pollution menace in the fishing trade, female fish traders are also exposed to high risk of sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

Multifaceted development challenges like plastic pollution require cross-sectoral systems thinking which recognises the interconnectedness of sectors and actors.

Incidentally, such efforts to address plastic pollution should not be confined to the environmental sector as they require joint action and partnerships with other sectors such as public health, trade and manufacturing, gender, youth and social development among others.

That is why it is important that programmes and projects such as USAid-funded Building Capacity for Integrated Family Planning and Reproductive Health and Population, Environment and Development Action (BUILD) Project have started to recognise the interconnectedness of people, their health, and the environment upon which life depends upon. 

It is without a doubt that the populations of Africa are also undergoing phenomenal changes in density, age structure, internal and external mobility, and increasing urbanisation, a factor that has encouraged the production and distribution of plastics hence leading to the menace of the plastic pollution problem we face today.

Each of the population dynamics mentioned exerts profound stress on the environment and overall sustainable development.

It is therefore welcome that projects such as BUILD are coming in to support decision-makers to begin appreciating systems thinking and understanding the cross-sectoral benefits of health, including the role of population dynamics and voluntary family planning.

The project also seeks to increase gender equality and promote youth empowerment to achieve sustainable development outcomes.

[The writer is the Director of the USAid-funded BUILD Project, which is implemented by a consortium of partners led by the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP)]