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Africa: Dealing with the environmental impact of packaging

Africa has one of the most diverse food and cuisine markets on the planet, with the industry projected by the World Bank to reach US$1 trillion by 2030.

However, with the increase in diversity and interest in food across the continent, many countries are beginning to experience the impact and fallout of such a booming industry.

While plastic and Styrofoam are popular packaging materials in South Africa and other African countries, they create a huge problem for waste disposal because they are difficult to recycle or destroy.

The impact of packaging is beginning to be recognized and acted upon by many governments, industry representatives and manufacturers across Africa, including the 2017 ProPak Africa exhibition that focused on sustainability.

Here are more information in parts of Africa.

South Africa

This region is reportedly one of the worst hit by this problem.

Marine biology lecturer, David Glassom, made headlines in 2017 after a visit to Durban harbor, the largest and busiest shipping terminal in sub-Saharan Africa.

He was reportedly astonished that he was unable to find a single crab in the area.

While the environment was once biologically rich, it has since been contaminated by the residue of plastic bottles and other plastic packaging.

Glassom was not the only academic to speak up about the continent’s growing plastic waste issue.

Dr Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia researcher, believes that the mountain of plastic waste will keep growing for at least 80 years, particularly in Africa and other developing nations.

This will result in a near permanent contamination of the natural environment in these regions.


Earlier in 2017, Zimbabwe’s Environment Management Agency ordered an immediate ban on the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) containers, ordering them to be replaced with recyclable or biodegradable ones.

Anyone found breaking the ban can be fined up to US$5,000.

A report from Voice of America attributed the ban to it emitting toxic chemicals when burned — the routine process for waste disposal in Zimbabwe.

Additionally, the containers are discarded as litter throughout the streets of large cities like Harare, which inevitably clogs drainage systems and causes flooding.

EPS is not biodegradable and can take up to a million years to break down, taking a heavy toll on the environment.

The waste is also often contaminated with food or drink, making it difficult to clean because EPS is 95% air and therefore very porous.

As a result, it is very difficult to recycle.


Economic reforms have meant that the overall economic development and levels of consumer spending have recently risen in Kenya, improving the disposable income of the middle-class.

As a result, the import of plastic materials has seen steady growth for the last two years as the demand for plastic and packaged goods soar.

Additionally, it is estimated that 100 million plastic bags are given out by Kenyan supermarkets every year, resulting in clogged sewers, damaged soil and risk to animals that often consume the waste.

However, in the summer of 2017, Kenya implemented the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags to address the increase of plastic waste in the country.

Kenyans found producing, selling or using plastic bags will risk imprisonment of up to four years, or fines of US$40,000.

While some industry commentators were against the ban, many say it will give rise to new businesses and traders selling canvas bags, baskets and tote bags.

The National Environment Management Authority in Kenya also urges retailers and shoppers to look for alternative packaging materials like paper, aluminum or bamboo.

Across the continent

More than 10 other African countries have implemented taxes, partial or full bans on plastic bags, including Morocco and Mauritania.

The East African community has also considered a regional ban on the product.

However, many other countries on the continent have yet to realize the full effect of their plastic usage.

For instance, Ethiopia has emerged as a major importer of plastic goods since its adoption of free market economy policy in 1992, as Uganda plans to host one of the largest plastics industry event for manufacturers.

Even smaller countries like Mozambique and Tanzania are playing a part in Africa’s significant plastic problem.

Countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya have taken drastic action with their respective bans and many other countries may soon follow.

Taking responsibility

Government policies have clamped down on single-use plastic and its subsequent waste, particularly plastic bags.

However, what will drive true change are demands from the consumer and the actions taken by retailers and manufacturers.

African food and beverage producers can make a real difference, complementing the ongoing governmental strategy by looking closely at the procedures and systems they use.

By sourcing sustainable suppliers and using recyclable materials, businesses can help to slow down the growth of plastic waste along African coast lines.

Coca-Cola is leading the way by pledging to collect and recycle the equivalent of all its product’s packaging by 2030.

It also aims to make all of its packaging with an average of 50% recycled content.

African retailers are also making changes.

Supermarkets are asking manufacturers and suppliers for products in non-plastic packaging, therefore getting food and beverage producers to source for alternatives, such as aluminum foil and paper board.

Is aluminum any better?

There are various schools of thought on determining one packaging material as more environmentally friendly than another.

But, aluminum certainly trumps plastic.

Aluminum is endlessly recyclable, without any loss of its properties or quality.

In fact, 75% of all the aluminum ever produced is still in use today.

Recycling aluminum saves about 95% of the energy needed to make the metal from raw materials.

There are carbon dioxide (CO2) savings too — recycling one tons of aluminum saves nine tons of CO2 emissions.

When you consider that one ton of CO2 is equivalent to driving a car 2800 miles, the benefits of recycling aluminum really start to become clear.

Suddenly, it is questionable why plastic packaging is ever used over recyclable or biodegradable alternatives.

Changing over from plastic is a highly effective remedy to the plastic problem, which keeps plastics off coast lines and reduces carbon emissions.

Recycling aluminum is also great for the economy as it holds its scrap value incredibly well.

It is far too precious to leave accumulating on the coast lines.

Work together

By working with an expert packaging supplier, food producers can smoothly transition to a more sustainable packaging choice.

It may not be as daunting as one has thought at first, due to information that identifies the smooth-wall foil tray equivalent to the plastic tray, for example.

With no change to size and shape, there is no need for to completely overhaul production lines when using such a packaging technology.

With the growth in the food and beverage industry forecast across Africa in the next few years, it is important for manufacturers, retailers and consumers to consider the type of packaging and waste they are contributing to through their products and purchases.

Story by Polly Duffee, GM, Advanta South Africa

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