Multinationals make plastic recycling commitments in Africa

Some single-use plastic bottles in a trash bin. A new law, that is currently before parliament, will ban single-use plastics. File.

International consumer goods companies operating in Africa including Diageo, Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, and Nestlé this week launched the ‘Africa Plastics Recycling Alliance’ at the just concluded Africa CEO Forum in Kigali.

The Alliance aims to turn the current challenge of plastic waste in Sub Saharan Africa into an opportunity to create jobs and commercial activity by improving the collection and recycling of plastics.

“We wish to tackle the threat plastics waste poses in Sub-Saharan Africa by turning this into an opportunity to create jobs, promote economic activity and reduce import dependency through improved collection and recycling,” the four companies said in a statement.

Studies estimate that every minute the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic is leaking into streams and rivers, ultimately ending up in the ocean, making a devastating impact on marine wildlife.

An estimated 100 million marine animals die each year due to discarded plastic and the problem is set to get worse.

The ‘New Plastics Economy’ report estimated in 2016 that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

The report showed that just 14 per cent of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, a third is left in fragile ecosystems and 40 per cent ends up in landfill.

The current model of consumption widely used means that products get manufactured, bought, used once or twice for the purpose they were made, and then thrown away.

Most packaging rarely gets a second use.

Economists and environmental conservationists have been advocating for scaling of what is now being called a circular economy, basically an economy where materials like plastics constantly flow around the system instead of being used once and then discarded.

Through the coalition, the global companies say they will focus on supporting local, market-led, practical solutions with the minimum necessary bureaucracy at the regional level.

According to them, each company will collaborate in those markets where they add most value according to their scale and presence and that initiatives developed under the collaboration will aim to have comprehensive plans and appropriate to the local context.

The four players made individual commitments, but they collectively pledged to significantly reduce packaging weight by 2020.

Unilever, a UK based consumer goods Company committed to achieve 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable and 25 per cent recycled plastic content by 2025.

Bruno Witvoet, the President of Unilever Africa told The New Times that the decision was informed by the increasing concern resulting from problems that plastics continue to pose, globally.

“We all know plastics are a problem all over the world and in Africa both in big cities and in the country side. As a manufacturer of local products, we do realise that we have a role to play in trying to tackle the issue,” he said.

The official added that the commitment they have made in Africa is part of the company’s global commitment the firm made recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On the concerns of affordability of recyclable materials like water bottles which many people have been raising in different markets, Witvoet indicated that companies have to make a trade-off.

“Our ambition is to develop an economic system that ultimately that makes recyclable plastics cheaper than virgin plastics. As a result of that, you incentivise people to use it and you don’t impact prices on finished products,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Nestle, a Swiss food and drink firm, said it targets to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable by 2025.

Diageo, a beverages company, committed to ensure 100 per cent of plastics they use is designed to be widely recyclable, achieve 40 per cent average recycled content in plastic bottles and 100 per cent by 2030.

Coca Cola, another beverages company, said it will collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle it sells globally by 2030, produce 100 per cent recyclable packaging by 2025 and use at least 50 per cent recycled material by 2030.

However, they argue that plastics will remain an important packaging material if African consumers are to get safe and affordable products they need. But at the moment, lack of collection and recycling capacity and systems in many African markets coupled with growing populations is creating a growing problem of plastics waste.

They see an opportunity to tackle that problem in a way that creates jobs and reduces dependency on imported materials while alternatives to plastics are developed.