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