Analysis: The plastic pile weighing on Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s troubling rise in the use of plastic material is particularly visible when one considers the country’s non-existing garbage disposal facility and human behavior

Etenesh Abera and Bileh Jelan

Addis Abeba, December 10/2019 – According to the UN environment body, UNEP, globally “one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute and Five trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.” In total, half of all plastics produced annually are designed to be used once: the world produces 300 million tons of plastic waste annually, a weight equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.

In Ethiopia, a Country Cluster of EUROMAP-European Plastics and Rubber Machinery puts the per capita plastic consumption in 2018 at 2.8 kg, a 267% rise from a figure that put the consumption per capita at 0.6 kg in 2007. That places Ethiopia as the second largest importer of plastic raw material in central and eastern Africa and the fastest growing plastics industry in the continent.

While countries like Kenya and Rwanda, two of the other fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, are seeing policy changes toward reduction of plastic consumption and an all-out ban on single-use plastic products, Ethiopia is seeing a rise in its plastic consumption and production. EUROMAP predicts that Ethiopia will produce 386,000 tons by 2022 and the per capita consumption will rise to reach 3.8 Kg.

Teshale Woreku, owner of a local butcher, corroborates EUROMAP’s alarming prediction when he speaks of the rise in plastic bag consumption in his field of business. “We buy 50 plastic bags for 22 ETB (some $70 cents) and 32 plastic bags for 16 ETB. During holidays, we consume up to 50 packs per day,” he told Addis Standard. According to him in an ordinary, non-fasting Saturdays and Sundays, the use plastic bags rise up to 10 packs, each pack consisting of dozens of plastic bags. “As a shop owner I will be happy if customers can use alternatives materials for two reasons. First, the plastic bag used to package meat for customers are one-time use. I believe this affects the environment. Secondly, it makes sense economically, since the cost of providing such materials is contributing to increases in meat prices.”  

The story of the vegetable market is no different. Solomon, a local distributor of vegetables, who only wanted to be referred by his first name, told Addis Standard he did not know exactly how much plastic bags he uses per day. “I am not sure but we buy 2000-3000 ETB (around $70 – 100) worth of plastic bags each month, so we don’t know exactly how much plastic bags we are using daily,” he said.’’ A customer at Solomon’s shop who was packing her goods, says she would take more than 10 plastic bags every four days for vegetables alone and another 10 bags for other items. “I am always surprised at the amount of plastic bags I consume alone,” she said.

These figures add up to Ethiopia’s troubling rise in the use of plastic material when considering the country’s non-existing garbage disposal facility and culture, especially the absence of proper sorting in the types of household garbage. Most plastic materials end up in the streets, rivers and alleys of urban and rural Ethiopia: on sidewalks and farmlands alike.

Lack of institutionalized research 

There are several companies which are either engaged in importing or producing plastic bags in some form or another. Aleta Land Group, “a local indigenous company that has been established to predominantly to engage in coffee exporting activities,” is one such company. But its marketing manager, Tigist Nemiru, told Addis standard, that “all raw materials we use in our production are environmentally friendly and we only produce poly bags”. However, there are no information available if if there were efforts by the company to conduct researches on either environmental impacts or decomposition of their products.

Speaking about the absence of corporate practices in mitigating plastic pollution and waste management, Dr Ahmed Hassen, a researcher at Addis Abeba University, admits that despite evidences linking lack of such data and the mounting problem, at the moment, “we don’t have any available research.”

Yalemsew Adela, a researcher, an environmental technology expert and the director of the environmental pollution management directorate at the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research institute highlighted the need for more coverage to such stories in a serious manner and called the stage Ethiopia is in “a plastic pollution stage.” “It is a nasty state; we consume huge amounts of plastics in various sectors and we can only imagine the amount of waste that is dumped on our eco-system,” he told Addis Standard.

According to Yalemsew, the packaging sector, which is using 60% of plastics produced in bottling and bagging, is the highest consumer of plastic products. The government is aware of the problem and is trying to find solutions. “Our current research project is focused on ways we can contribute in making a green economy, be it by reducing the contamination load on the environment or recycling.” He further explained that institutional arrangements, policy and the legal frame work were some of the ways the government was looking into. But he admits “we have all these three and still I don’t understand where the problem lays. The problem is also associated with human behavior: we are designed to use the what we need and get rid of what we don’t,” he said.

In the absence of viable policy

The absence of a clear strategy and policy by responsible authorities such as City Administration offices to manage organic and non-organic waste separately is to take a chunk of the blame too, according to Yalemsew. “Addis Abeba spends 400 million ETB to manage all waste annually,” but effective management of such resource is another thing.

One way of dealing with the problem is starting a public discussion on alternatives packaging than to the one-time use of plastic products, Yalemsew said, “We could produce long lasting packaging products; we could use bamboo and many other materials for example. But I mentioned the problem is not with lack of alternatives as it is the social behavior and the government’s failure in balancing between economic growth and environmental protection.” But he cautiously noted that before throwing all the blame on the government we should also consider that factors such as “more than 37 NGOs operating in Ethiopia are still teaching that hand washing before meals is important. Officials usually represent such communities.”

Gutema Moroda (Eng.), Deputy Manager at Addis Abeba Environmental Protection Authority, also admits that the city does not have a strategy on separating organic and non-organic waste although “we have a proclamation and regulations in place and no corporation is allowed to dispose of waste without the permission of the authorities,” he told Addis Standard.

However, the city administration is designing a policy to have biodegradables and bio plastics materials replace the current materials used in plastic production, to have Addis Ababa ban the use of plastic bags and to put into effect a law that demands the packaging sector to participate in the recycling their own products “I can’t pinpoint the exact date but Addis Abeba will ban the use plastic bags in the near future,” he said.

So far, Teki has created job opportunities to 27 employees, of whom 17 are deaf employees, and has replaced 805,000 plastic bags with paper bags

Meanwhile, although few and far between, there are exemplary efforts where concerned authorities can look into possibilities. One exceptional example is Teki Paper Bags, a “social and environmental enterprise developed for and by the deaf community”.

Teki Paper Bags primary goal is to “create sustainable employment to empower deaf women while building a plastic bag free Ethiopia,” according company information. So far, Teki has created job opportunities to 27 employees, of whom 17 are deaf employees, and has replaced 805,000 plastic bags with paper bags. “At Teki, we aim to make a real and lasting change in the lives of deaf women by providing meaningful employment, a social life, plus the ability to find a family and take care of their children through entrepreneurship.”

By all accounts, initiatives such as Teki Paper Bags deserve all the policy support from government authorities if Ethiopia is to unshackle itself and become free from the weight of the plastic pile threatening its environment and its future generations. AS

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