Many Africans are oblivious to how the recycling industry helps mitigate climate change and fatten wallets. If you are to walk through many of the continent’s major cities such as Lagos, Johannesburg and Harare you would certainly come across the unmistakable piles of waste lining the streets or lying under bridges.

A wasted opportunity?

Presently, Africa recycles just 4 per cent of its waste. According to research conducted by Africa Waste Management Outlook, the continent is expected to produce 250 million tonnes of solid waste come 2025.

Though recycling is a billion-dollar industry, many governments across Africa have not yet tapped into its potential. Across the continent, only South Africa has made significant strides to recycle.

To find out more about this untapped industry, I spoke with a veteran recycler from South Africa, Annabé Pretorius.

Annabé: ‘Africa has not yet fully embraced the recycling industry. Roughly 34 per cent of South Africans do not have access to waste management services, therefore, recycling (separating recyclables) is not even an option in those consumers’ lives. Exceptions to the rule would be when people have realised an income opportunity and collect material for income — including some places in Africa’.

That is not far from the truth. Many on the continent simply do not have access to waste management services, let alone the option of separating recyclables. That’s why you see so many dumping sites. People just do not know what to do with their waste. Even if someone wants to begin recycling, there are no services available to cater to that.

Too much red tape

But if recycling is so lucrative, why are governments unmoved by the whole approach?

Annabé: ‘In principle, I don’t believe you should see waste and waste beneficiation as a means to economic wealth. We should not have waste to start off with! Is recycling economically viable? Yes, it can be if certain principles are in place. [For instance], is there a sufficient supply of recyclables? Are the recyclables relatively clean, separated from organic materials? Is there a market for your recyclate? Do you have regulations in place for wastewater? Do you have a reasonable supply of energy for the equipment? It only really works if there are true economic principles. [So], no subsidies, no taxes, no interference’.

It’s no wonder Africa is having take-off issues given the amount of bureaucratic red tape. Nevertheless, Annabé argues that all is not lost as long as African states are willing to come on board and support the initiative. She also envisages more recyclers coming into the mix, with or without state support.

Annabé: ‘Start-up capital is always a challenge to the youth. Governments can facilitate start-up funding (not grants) for new entrants, to establish small collection and recycling businesses. They can also organise waste management to ensure less visible waste but more material in centralised spots that can be accessed and processed more sustainably.

‘I see more recyclers (reprocessors) and therefore a more organised collection of recyclables. We need […] to have fewer but larger operations to ensure a better quality recyclate — more spikes to the wheel [so to speak], and feeding recyclables into the system’.

Africa is sitting on a small pot of gold that can alleviate its belligerent unemployment crisis and tackle some of the effects of climate change. But this requires governments to take action and roll their sleeves up.