Every year more than 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally and an estimated 19–23 million tons end up in lakes, rivers and seas. However, less than 10% of the world’s annual plastic production is recycled. In Africa, which produces only 5% and consumes 4% of global plastic, growing population and urbanization are driving an increase in single-use plastic, heightening environmental pollution and health threats.
World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have collaborated to galvanize national efforts to reduce environmental threats to health since the adoption of the Libreville Declaration on health and Environment in 2008. Ever since, they jointly conducted several projects among which the Clim-HEALTH Africa project, which aims to help predict, prevent and manage acute public health effects of climate change in Africa; and the CHEMOBS project which developed a prototype for an integrated national health and environment observatory on chemical risks to human health and the environment.
This year, World Environment Day is being marked under the theme “Solutions to plastic pollution”. Alexander Mangwiro, UNEP Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste and Air Quality, discusses the threat of plastic pollution and how it can be addressed.
What are the impacts of plastic pollution on health in Africa?
Plastic pollution has various negative impacts on health in Africa, affecting both human populations and ecosystems. Plastic waste, particularly single-use plastics and microplastics, can contaminate freshwater sources such as rivers, lakes, and groundwater. This pollution can lead to the consumption of microplastics through contaminated drinking water, potentially posing risks to human health. Likewise, plastic can end up in the food chain. For instance, plastic in our oceans breaks down into smaller fragments known as microplastics, which are ingested by marine organisms. When humans consume seafood contaminated with microplastics, there is a risk of microplastic transfer up the food chain, with potentially severe health consequences. Plastics may also contain toxic chemicals, which can leach into the environment and potentially enter the food chain. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals, particularly through the consumption of contaminated food or water, can have adverse health effects, including endocrine disruption, developmental issues and increased cancer risks.
In many African cities and villages, improper disposal of plastic waste can create breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. In addition, the burning of plastic waste, a common practice in some regions of Africa, releases harmful pollutants into the air, including toxic gases and particulate matter. Inhaling these pollutants can cause respiratory problems, exacerbate existing respiratory conditions, and contribute to air pollution-related diseases. Across the continent, there is barely any plastic treatment infrastructure in place. The indiscriminate disposal of plastic will likely reduce the porosity of soil to the point of breaking the regeneration cycle of water resources and reduce the quality of soils for agricultural practice.
Therefore, plastic pollution also has huge environmental and socio-economic consequences, including the degradation of ecosystems. This can have indirect health impacts as it disrupts the balance of ecosystems that provide essential services, such as water purification, carbon sequestration, and disease regulation, and can undermine local economies and livelihoods through food insecurity.
How can African countries address the impact of plastic pollution impacts on health?
Addressing the impacts of plastic pollution on health in Africa requires comprehensive measures, including improved waste management practices (designed around reduction, reuse and recycling initiatives), public awareness campaigns and policy interventions. By mitigating plastic pollution and promoting sustainable alternatives, it is possible to protect human health, preserve ecosystems, and foster sustainable development in the region.
Many African countries have shown strong commitment to beating plastic pollution, especially making progress in reducing their plastic waste. Today, around 30 African countries have banned single-use plastic bags. However, the effectiveness of policies on plastic production, use and waste management needs to be improved as capacity and mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation of these solutions are still nascent or inexistent. We hope that the United Nations Treaty on Plastic Pollution discussed last week in Paris and is slated for finalization and adoption in 2024 will help accelerate the development and implementation of national and regional policies.
What solutions does the treaty propose to tackle plastic pollution?
The United Nations treaty on Plastic Pollution aims to address the global crisis of plastic pollution and establish a comprehensive framework to tackle its impacts on the environment and human health. While the treaty is still being developed, we hope it will help, strengthen waste management systems, bolster financial aid, technology transfer and capacity-building initiatives, particularly in developing countries. Further, it aims at enhancing plastic pollution management capabilities, and fostering international cooperation and collaboration among nations, including sharing of best practices, scientific knowledge and technologies to effectively combat plastic pollution. The overall objective is to improve people’s health, protect the environment and promote more sustainable economies.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of WHO Regional Office for Africa.