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Africa’s plastic bag ban won’t solve anything

Updated: 
November 13, 2017 - 12:05am

In Africa, the plastic shopping bag is an endangered species. Last week, tiny Benin became the latest African country to restrict the import, production and even use of such bags. It’s not messing around, either. Following in the steps of Rwanda (where plastic bag importers are publicly shamed) and Kenya (where bags users can be subject to four years in jail), Benin plans to fine bag importers as much as $87,000.

That may well reduce the supply of plastic bags. But it ignores the larger problem. Plastic bags are just the most tangible symptoms of Africa’s inability to collect and dispose of its surging volumes of garbage. It’s a looming crisis that worsens every major environmental challenge facing the continent, including climate change, habitat destruction and a lack of clean water. Solving it will require much more than a crackdown on bags.

By weight and volume, plastic bags make up a very small percentage of the world’s waste. But in Africa, their visual impact is outsized. On a recent trip to Cotonou, Benin’s capital, I saw them clogging drains and sewers, stuck in fences, scattered across beaches, and littered all over the dirt roads of the city’s famed Dantokpa market. Similar scenes can be found across the continent, where plastic bags have become synonymous with the small-scale commerce that’s driving Africa’s economic growth.

In an ideal world, those bags would be dropped in trash cans, collected by garbage trucks, and disposed of in landfills, incinerators, or recycling plants. But in sub-Saharan Africa, only 46 percent of urban garbage is collected on average. Cotonou has no modern, environmentally sound landfills, and struggles to find contractors to pick up any trash at all. In the absence of formal collection and disposal, dangerous informal dumps have proliferated. Such dumps provide a breeding ground for disease, contribute to contaminated groundwater, and emit potent greenhouse gases that worsen climate change.

Banning plastic bags won’t solve any of these problems. In fact, it could arguably worsen things. Studies dating back to 2006 have consistently shown that single-use plastic bags have a smaller impact on climate change than reusable paper or cloth bags. Those facts are unlikely to change the minds of people determined to eradicate plastic bags, especially politicians who see such bans as a cost-free way to show their commitment to the environment.

But the energy devoted to those well-intentioned efforts would be better spent on programs to ensure that Africans have access to a modern waste-management system where bags could be disposed of properly. Currently, Africa generates only about 5 percent of the world’s solid waste. But that figure is growing fast, and by mid-century its trash production is likely to rival high-income regions like the U.S., Europe and China.

African governments will have to take the lead in addressing this problem, but they can’t do it alone. It’s not unusual for cities in the developing world to spend fully half their budgets on garbage collection and disposal. Wealthy countries and global institutions should find it in their self-interest to help out. As the world looks for ways to reduce carbon emissions, for instance, an effort focused on developing-world landfills — which are huge emitters of methane — would provide a lot of bang for the buck. Plants that convert trash and waste gases into energy would be a promising investment opportunity, while Africa’s emerging technology sector could be tapped to develop energy-efficient waste-collection routes.

None of this will be easy. Building a modern waste-management system is as complicated as building a road network. And garbage collection lacks the cachet of higher-profile environmental issues, such as climate change or endangered species. But Africa’s garbage crisis worsens those problems, and will only get more urgent. Plastic-bag bans, for all of their symbolic power, are little more than a distraction from a far harder and more important project.

Timothy Lavin can be contacted at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.

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