Fifty per cent by 2050: the ambitious bid to boost recycling in Africa

November's Cop27 conference in Sharm El Sheikh will outline plans for a green revolution in the continent

Plastic bottles at a landfill site in Ghana. The World Bank projects that global waste will grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050, of which 516 million tonnes will be produced in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Bloomberg
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Egypt is leading an initiative to recycle 50 per cent of Africa’s waste by 2050, a large increase from an estimated 10 per cent at present.

The 50by2050 initiative will be introduced in conjunction with Cop27, the UN climate summit set to take place in Sharm El Sheikh, in November.

Egypt’s Ministry of Environment has teamed up with global management consultancy Roland Berger to bring public and private partners together for the monumental task.

Organisers say it is the first time in Cop history that a holistic coalition will be launched to address waste challenges and reduce the sector's climate change impact.

Hani Tohme, Roland Berger senior partner and head of sustainability in the Middle East and North Africa region, told The National that waste had never been a topic at Cop, "even though they talk about climate action and climate change and emissions”.

“We wanted to put waste on the table,” he said.

Switching to renewable energy would address only 55 per cent of global emissions, while adopting the principles of the circular economy by eliminating waste and pollution would tackle the remaining 45 per cent, he said, quoting the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Cop27 provides the right opportunity to address the waste issue because Egypt is “among the biggest in the region, when it comes to the size of the population, the GDP and how much waste is being produced” and it is “considered key” to the African continent, said Mr Tohme.

How bad is the waste problem?

The world generates more than 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually and that number is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050, a 2018 World Bank report said. At least a third of global waste is not managed in an environmentally safe manner.

The World Bank projects that, by 2050, the Middle East and North Africa will produce 255 million tonnes of waste and Sub-Saharan Africa will produce 516 million tonnes. In those regions, more than half of waste is openly dumped.

“[This initiative] is 50 per cent recycling in Africa by 2050. But in reality if Africa reaches 50 per cent, the whole world reaches 50 per cent,” said Mr Tohme.

What will 50by2050 do?

So far, two rounds of online meetings in July and August have been held and a third will take place on Tuesday.

More than 45 public entities have committed to taking part in the initiative after the first meeting and 60 private sector partners after the second. The final list will be announced at Cop27.

“It is important to have partners in all African countries, but I have to say that without the private sector, it will not reach the success desired,” Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad said after the August meeting.

The private sector can contribute in many ways, such as by using waste to generate energy and biogas, she said.

In June, Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone signed an agreement with US company H2 Industries to build a $4bn waste-to-hydrogen plant in East Port Said.

Ms Fouad emphasised the importance of sustainable finance. While funding is often one of the main challenges with such initiatives, it can also be seen as an opportunity for businesses.

It is estimated that the value of recyclables that could have been recovered in Africa in 2014 was $8bn, growing to $60bn in 2050.

“This is an industry by itself,” Mr Tohme said. “Through this initiative, we’re going to link those who want to fund with those who want to be funded.”

Beyond good business, it makes environmental sense for the larger community, he said.

“I don’t think there is a boundary. My climate is bad because your climate is bad. And if by solving your problem, I solve mine, why not let me solve your problem?” Mr Tohme said.

The aim of 50by2050 is to “join forces with existing projects and propose scalable solutions to upgrade the African waste ecosystem”, said Nagwa El Karawy, senior waste management adviser to the Environment Ministry, in a LinkedIn post.

It intends to “catalyse greater investment and effort” and “address rapidly the rooted challenges by increasing treatment and recycling capacities, setting the necessary level of policy-making and raising global awareness”, she said.

That means shifting from informal and scavenging markets and building the right infrastructure, such as material-recovering centres, composting plants and waste-to-energy factories.

The Egyptian neighbourhood recycling vast amounts of rubbish — in pictures

Mr Tohme pointed to some positive examples of change on a country level that could be replicated elsewhere.

Kenya issued Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations last year, whereby a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage. Tunisia’s waste management agency is tackling open dumping and regulating the use of landfills. Several African countries have banned the use of plastic bags.

Is the goal achievable?

Reaching the 50 per cent mark by 2050 is not easy, but it is an achievable target, Mr Tohme said.

The African Union had called on the continent's cities to commit to recycling at least 50 per cent of the urban waste they generate by 2023. Perhaps a 28-year time frame is a more realistic goal.

Some countries globally, such as Germany, have reached 95 per cent recycling. A few Gulf countries have set aggressive targets, such as 85 per cent by 2030 in Saudi Arabia.

Africa is much further behind as it “doesn’t have the right funds, doesn’t have the right master planning and is not yet thinking about waste as a priority”, Mr Tohme said.

“Cop27 should be seen as the start and not the end,” he said. “Every Cop will be the time to look back and say: did you actually do it? And look forward and say: this is how you should do it better.”

Updated: October 10, 2022, 8:25 PM