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Fly tipping in Africa – a global issue, and a local one too

cc image via Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Illegal dumping of waste in public areas, otherwise known as fly tipping, is becoming a bigger and bigger problem worldwide. Despite the increased range of available options for waste disposal at home – particularly a huge upswing in the global spend on recycling facilities in recent years – there are still far too many people dumping garbage outside of designated areas for someone else to worry about.

Earlier this year, reports from England showed that incidents of fly-tipping had risen for the third year running, and are now costing the government (via taxpayers, of course) nearly £50m annually. The vast number and diversity of campaigns to help promote responsible waste management in Britain – particularly through recycling – mirrors those seen in dozens of countries around the globe, part of an ongoing race to stem the flow of rubbish into city streets, suburban areas and larger rural spaces worldwide.

But the UK, along with numerous other nations, doesn’t only dump waste in its own backyard. As we learned from the Trafigura oil pollution scandal in 2010, companies were also routinely engaging in the illegal disposing of hazardous waste on Africa’s Ivory Coast.

Although the Trafigura disaster was a particularly high-profile example of hugely irresponsible waste management, it’s far from an isolated case for Africa. Multiple exposés have revealed how countries such as Ghana are routinely treated as huge open landfills for spent electronics from all over the planet. While some locals make their living from scavenging these e-waste mountains for sellable items, the dumps provide little more than a damaging environmental and health hazard for the vast majority of residents.

Other countries shipping their waste to Africa only compounds a problem that has already been an issue for years in many of its nations countries, particularly in West African countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia. Earlier this year, environmental experts from all around the globe met in Ghana to try to come up with workable solutions to the growing problem of domestic and international waste mismanagement that has routinely contributed to African problems with flooding and disease outbreak.

An increased focus on recycling infrastructure is widely seen as the best solution for Africa, along with a renewed and widespread campaign to raise awareness of the value of recycling among many of the worst affected and most vulnerable communities. Prominent African environmentalists such as Joshua Amponsem are spearheading increasingly widespread campaigns to help teach the value of ‘ecopsychology’ at grassroots level in local schools.

Germany has recently stepped in to assist Ghana, pledging support to help tackle the e-waste problems at the infamous Agbogbloshie landfills. Meanwhile, successful recycling drives like those seen in Togo are slowly starting to have an impact when it comes to educating and motivating local youth to take greater care of their own waste disposal systems.

One of the key steps in tackling larger problems like the Agbogbloshie dump, say African scholars, is to change the workings of the rudimentary economy that has sprung up around it and that currently helps to perpetuate the toxic cycle. By building in waste management systems and improving education around the issues at play, local government and business can work together to make organised and responsible recycling of used goods into a more attractive proposition, while still allowing locals to turn a profit from discarded electronics – albeit in a less direct way than simply scavenging the piles of waste for sellable items.

To address the problem on a more long-term basis, Africa will need to deal with several other key issues in the coming years – particularly when it comes to its ongoing reliance on plastic, which creates one of the more problematic and enduring environmental threats.

Numerous countries around the globe , including Great Britain, have recently enforced bans on free plastic bags for customers in stores and supermarkets, and various measures to help curb the colossal quantities of plastic waste swamping Africa are now being debated too.

A ban on plastic bags – or at least the introduction of laws demanding stores charge customers for them – would likely be an effective short-term measure, but a more wide-reaching education programme is broadly seen as the only real way to cement such changes as cultural norms for the benefit of future generations. Like the majority of environmental initiatives in Africa, responsible waste management is a trickle-down issue that needs to start with big business, industry and agriculture if it’s ever to become truly embedded in households across the continent.

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