Tech-in­duced pol­lu­tion: Africa’s cur­rent and fu­ture chal­lenge

Business a.m. - - COMMENT -

THE EVENTS, PROD­UCTS AND PRAC­TICES that would shape the fu­ture are al­ready be­com­ing ev­i­dent. Many are with us al­ready. The age of dis­rup­tion is not help­ing mat­ters ei­ther. Al­though the de­vel­oped coun­tries have peaked in some ar­eas of so­phis­ti­ca­tion, many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are rac­ing against time, seek­ing to have their fair share of tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs and en­joy prod­ucts there­from. Of note are in­dus­trial prod­ucts’ wastes, aris­ing after the use­ful lives of such prod­ucts, and pos­ing un­told prob­lems to hu­man­ity nowa­days. And Africa is not left out. These will be ex­am­ined in some de­tails in this and com­ing weeks.

The grow­ing mid­dle class, rep­re­sent­ing a group of peo­ple who have high spend­ing power be­cause of their rel­a­tively high in­come level, form the bulk of the con­sumer mar­ket. They thus bring with them lots of busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. This is of grow­ing rel­e­vance in Africa where a rapidly ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion, high rates of ur­ban­i­sa­tion and re­duc­ing prices for tech­no­log­i­cal gad­gets have ex­posed the pop­u­lace to many con­sumer prod­ucts, some high end and some low end. Of par­tic­u­lar note is the fact that, al­though not much con­sumer goods are man­u­fac­tured in Africa, a lot of im­por­ta­tion takes place. A no­table per­cent­age of African im­ports are con­sumer goods.

The up­wardly mo­bile con­sumer has spe­cific de­mands and the pop­u­lar man­u­fac­tur­ing coun­tries are work­ing hard to meet these needs for African goods. The ap­petite for tech­nol­ogy-re­lated con­sumer goods prod­ucts is rapidly in­creas­ing and con­sid­er­ing that only a small frac­tion of the pop­u­lace al­ready has ac­cess, the mar­ket po­ten­tial is al­most lim­it­less. The World Bank es­ti­mates that the sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa con­sumer goods im­ports are worth US$ 84,435 mil­lion. These have the prospects of grow­ing. Sta­tis­tics also in­di­cate that the three largest economies on the con­ti­nent, South Africa, Nige­ria and Egypt, ac­count for al­most half of the en­tire con­ti­nent’s GDP ev­ery year. Nige­ria is the most pop­u­lous coun­try on the con­ti­nent. Ac­cord­ing to Africa im­ports and ex­ports sta­tis­tics, it ranks highly on the list of top im­porters.

Broadly, tech­no­log­i­cal gad­gets rank top among the prod­ucts im­ported and many oth­ers which are non-gad­gets con­sti­tute a bulk of the im­ports and non-biodegrad­able wastes that con­trib­ute enor­mously to pol­lu­tion. The role of ur­ban­i­sa­tion can­not be ig­nored, es­pe­cially since it has to do with mod­i­fied life­styles that lead to pref­er­ence for quick so­lu­tions due to tight sched­ules as­so­ci­ated with city life. For in­stance, ready-to-eat food, canned prod­ucts and bot­tled bev­er­ages have be­come more com­mon­place and most of the sup­ply for them comes from ex­ter­nal sources. These usu­ally re­quire some form of pack­ag­ing that would con­tinue to cre­ate mar­kets for poly­mer prod­ucts.

The rapid growth in plas­tics pro­duc­tion has been ex­tra­or­di­nary, sur­pass­ing most other man-made ma­te­ri­als, with the no­table ex­cep­tions of ma­te­ri­als used ex­ten­sively in the con­struc­tion sec­tor, such as steel and ce­ment. Plas­tics and other poly­mer prod­ucts have out­grown most man-made ma­te­ri­als and have long been un­der en­vi­ron­men­tal scru­tiny. How­ever, ro­bust global in­for­ma­tion, par­tic­u­larly about their end-of-life fate, is lack­ing. As of 2015, ap­prox­i­mately 6300 MT of plas­tic waste had been gen­er­ated, around nine per cent of which had been re­cy­cled, 12 per cent in­cin­er­ated, and 79 per cent was ac­cu­mu­lated in land­fills or the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. If cur­rent pro­duc­tion and waste man­age­ment trends con­tinue, roughly 12,000 MT of plas­tic waste will be in land­fills or in the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment by 2050.

Plas­tics’ largest mar­ket is pack­ag­ing, an ap­pli­ca­tion whose growth was ac­cel­er­ated by a global shift from re­us­able to sin­gle-use con­tain­ers. As a re­sult, the share of plas­tics in mu­nic­i­pal solid waste (by mass) in­creased from less than one per cent in 1960 to more than 10 per cent by 2005 in mid­dle- and high­in­come coun­tries. At the same time, global solid waste gen­er­a­tion, which is strongly cor­re­lated with gross na­tional in­come per capita, has grown steadily over the past five decades. The vast ma­jor­ity of monomers used to make plas­tics, such as eth­yl­ene and propy­lene, are de­rived from fos­sil hy­dro­car­bons. None of the com­monly used plas­tics are biodegrad­able. As a re­sult, they ac­cu­mu­late, rather than de­com­pose, in land­fills or the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

African ex­ports list places plas­tics on the list of top im­ports into the con­ti­nent. Thus, near-per­ma­nent con­tam­i­na­tion of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment with plas­tic waste has been de­scribed as a grow­ing con­cern. Plas­tic de­bris has been found in all ma­jor ocean basins, with an es­ti­mated 4 to 12 mil­lion met­ric tons (MT) of plas­tic waste gen­er­ated on land en­ter­ing the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment in 2010 alone. Con­tam­i­na­tion of fresh­wa­ter sys­tems and ter­res­trial habi­tats is also in­creas­ingly re­ported, as is en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion with syn­thetic fi­bres. Plas­tic waste is now so ubiq­ui­tous in the en­vi­ron­ment. As the out­come of mas­sive pro­duc­tion of non-biodegrad­able prod­ucts be­came prob­lem­atic, China found busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in re­cy­cling the wastes and be­came a world re­cep­ta­cle for the wastes and the world’s top desti­na­tion for re­cy­clable trash.

Re­cently, how­ever, a ban on cer­tain im­ports into China has forced ma­jor waste-gen­er­at­ing coun­tries to look for new dump­ing grounds for grow­ing piles of garbage. The de­ci­sion was an­nounced in July 2017 and came into force on Jan­uary 1, 2018, giv­ing com­pa­nies from Europe to the United States barely six months to look for other op­tions, and forc­ing some to store rub­bish in park­ing lots. In China, some re­cy­cling com­pa­nies have had to lay off staff or shut down due to the lost busi­ness. The ban bars im­ports of 24 cat­e­gories of solid waste, in­clud­ing cer­tain types of plas­tics, paper and tex­tiles. “Large amounts of dirty... or even haz­ardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw ma­te­ri­als. This pol­luted China’s en­vi­ron­ment se­ri­ously.” Could these also pro­vide clues into the health haz­ards once re­ported in plas­tic footwears that re­port­edly had dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects on hu­man skins, par­tic­u­larly of those who wore them?

In re­cent years, as global warm­ing and other en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns have mul­ti­plied, en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues have played an in­creas­ing role in trade ne­go­ti­a­tions, fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing what are gen­er­ally dif­fi­cult ne­go­ti­a­tions. An Eco-tar­iff, also known as an en­vi­ron­men­tal tar­iff, is a trade bar­rier erected for the pur­pose of re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion and im­prov­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. These trade bar­ri­ers may take the form of im­port or ex­port taxes on prod­ucts that have a large car­bon foot­print or are im­ported from coun­tries with lax en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions.

The en­vi­ron­ment is used pri­mar­ily in three ways: as a con­sump­tion good, a sup­plier of re­sources and a re­cep­ta­cle of wastes. These three uses may con­flict with one an­other. For ex­am­ple, us­ing a river as a re­cep­ta­cle of wastes can con­flict with its use as a sup­plier of re­sources and as a con­sump­tion good. When ei­ther the pro­duc­tion or con­sump­tion of a good causes a cost that is not re­flected in a mar­ket price, mar­ket fail­ures that are termed “ex­ter­nal­i­ties” may ex­ist. Such mar­ket fail­ures fre­quently in­volve the en­vi­ron­ment.

Then there is an­other prob­lem of coun­ter­feit­ing, which in­volves imi­ta­tions of items such as cloth­ing, hand­bags, shoes, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, avi­a­tion and au­to­mo­bile parts, watches, elec­tron­ics (both parts and fin­ished prod­ucts), soft­ware, works of art, toys, and movies.

To worsen the men­ace of plas­tics, poor qual­ity poly­mer prod­ucts are in wide cir­cu­la­tion and they re­main so for decades after their dis­posal. Their im­pacts are made worse when they are not gen­uine or stan­dard prod­ucts. Coun­ter­feit prod­ucts tend to in­volve patent or trade­mark in­fringe­ment in the case of goods, have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing lower qual­ity (some­times not work­ing at all) and may even in­clude toxic el­e­ments such as lead. This has re­sulted in the deaths of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, due to au­to­mo­bile and avi­a­tion ac­ci­dents, poi­son­ing, or ceas­ing to take es­sen­tial com­pounds (e.g., in the case a per­son takes non-work­ing medicine). Africa needs to work hard to limit the cri­sis caused by these tech-prod­ucts and en­sure the health and safety of its peo­ple.

The up­wardly mo­bile con­sumer has spe­cific de­mands and the pop­u­lar man­u­fac­tur­ing coun­tries are work­ing hard to meet these needs for African goods

OLUKAY­ODE OYELEYE Oyeleye is a pol­icy an­a­lyst, jour­nal­ist and vet­eri­nar­ian

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