Plastic waste is poisoning food and communities across Africa

Clogged section of River Nadarugu near Lake Nakuru National Park,  Nakuru County,  June 5, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Growing evidence indicates that as global plastic production escalates, Africa is disproportionately impacted by exposure to plastic’s toxic chemicals and waste which at the end contaminate our food chain and communities.

This is most evident as lab analysis testing for the world’s worst toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), reveal high levels of POPs substances such as dioxin in African communities where plastic waste is dumped.

Most of the POPs last for a long time in the environment and accumulate in animals and humans. The majority of these chemicals are lipophilic and accumulates in fatty tissues of organisms. When plastics are burnt in the open, incinerated or used as fuel, POPs known as dioxin are released into the environment and begin to poison the food chain.

In a recent study by CEJAD Kenya with its international partners IPEN on free-range chicken eggs in African countries, it was proved that POPs contamination was present and high on the food chain in the vicinity of plastic waste disposal sites and facilities.

The eggs were analysed for the contamination of dioxins, which are the very toxic byproducts of POPs incineration or reprocessing and recycling technologies. Additionally, the eggs were analysed for POPs that are in the process of being banned globally through the Stockholm Convention.

The egg samples were collected in locations where plastic waste is dumped and burned to make energy or processed for recycling across East and West African countries.

Plastics at a berth in the Port of Mombasa. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

In Kenya, samples were located in Ngara because of e-waste dismantling yard and in parts of Kikuyu where community cookers turn waste to energy for cooking. In West Africa samples were taken from the world’s largest e-waste scrapyard in Agbogboshie, Ghana, medical waste incinerators in Ghana and two open burning waste dumpsites in Cameroon.

Free-range chicken acted as active samplers for they pick food from soil including soil earthworms, worms and other soil fauna and dust thus ingesting some soil in the process. The role of the eggs laid by the free-range chickens provided an indicator of the POPs environmental contaminations levels in that locality and shows a clear picture of contamination of the whole food value chain.

Egg samples from Agbogboshie e-waste scrap yards were found to contain highest brominated dioxins ever. This means an adult taking one egg found within the yard exceeds the European Food Safety Authority for chlorinated dioxins by 220 fold.

The World Health Organisations highlighted this toxic threat from plastics in their June 2021 report: 'Children and digital dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child health'. Making the matter worse, most of the plastic e-waste scrap was exported from Western countries to Africa, essentially exporting toxics under the guise of recycling.

When plastics are burned, new toxic chemicals are created commonly known as dioxins. Dioxins and other POPs are regarded as the most toxic substances on the planet, having serious health effects at extremely low doses and thus requiring a joint effort in eliminating them from the environment.

The POPs persist for long period in the environment and can pass from one species to the next through food chains. In people, POPs can be transferred through placenta and breast milk and have been linked to reproductive and immunologic adverse health effects. In wildlife species POPs exposures have been linked to declines, diseases and abnormalities

When people talk of plastic, the bigger issue that comes to minds is the aspect of waste management, which in most scenarios is not the case but how to globally unite to minimise the production of plastic and eliminate toxic chemicals used in plastics.

Plastics at a residential area in Kisauni's Mlaleo area, Mombasa County. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

The export of electronic waste and plastics from developed countries in the name of repair, reuse or recycling has turned Africa to be a hazardous dumping site which needs to be controlled by international agreements like the Basel and Stockholm convention.

Lack of clear regulation has led to a toxic circular economy which has continued to cause havoc on the health of many people.

Countries in Africa, Kenya included should invest more in non-combustion technologies for medical waste treatment. The countries need to develop a legally binding global plastics-chemical treaty that will hold plastic and chemical producers financially and legally accountable to clean up the plastic mess, and demand producers discuss what chemicals are used to make plastics as well as stop producing plastics with toxic chemicals.

It’s a matter of urgency because it is not only on dry land where the toxic chemicals are found, but also in oceans and coastlines meaning that fish and sea birds swallow the plastic pellets contaminated by toxic chemicals and builds in the food chain.

We cannot cure the ongoing plastic pandemic without an international treaty to regulate toxic chemicals in plastic and limit the growing hazardous plastic waste. As the fifth session of United Nations Environment Assembly UNEA draws near, African leaders must stand united to demand for a new global treaty to control international plastic menace threatening Africans.