Landfills full of (climate) gold

Waste management is one of the largest unclaimed opportunities for green entrepreneurs in Africa.

  • The benefits were highlighted at the launch of UNEP's Global Waste Management Outlook at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi this week. 

The chance: Waste management strategies could inject an additional $8 billion annually into Africa's economy, fostering growth and jobs, says the UN. 

  • Building successful waste-tech companies is aided by a lack of competition. The sector is overlooked by most mainstream operators.

Power potential: The US already generates renewable energy from waste at more than 2,000 sites. 

  • At full scale, the sector’s benefit could eventually be equivalent to removing all American commuter vehicles from the roads. 

Why it matters: Landfills generate methane, which is 80 times worse per tonne for the climate than carbon. 

The pioneers: A few African startups in the waste sectors are pursuing the opportunity. 

  • Mr Green Africa targets the informal plastic recycling sector in East Africa.

  • Taka Taka Solutions manages 60 tons of Nairobi rubbish daily, recycling 95% of it.

  • Vicfold Recyclers, established in 2016 in Nigeria, works with university campuses.

  • Bekia, an Egyptian startup launched in 2017, exchanges household waste for points, redeemable for various goods and services.

The backers: Most progress is due to government support rather than private investment. 

  • Bans on single-use plastics in 30 African countries reduced pollution, setting a precedent for effective waste management policies. 

  • Senegal, Ghana and others have targeted sanitation and collection campaigns. 

  • Kenya introduced the concept of “producer responsibility”, holding manufacturers accountable for waste management.

Regulated industry: Every new government policy tends to create opportunities for someone to be paid to implement or comply with the rules.  

  • The African waste management market is estimated at $22 billion in 2024, projected to reach $28 billion by 2029.

  • Interested outside parties include the IKEA Foundation and the IFC.

Catch up quick: The underlying reason for tackling waste is climate change. Methane from human waste is equivalent to more than 10% of the continent's CO2 emissions.

  • Africa releases 4.7 million tonnes of methane annually from open dumps and landfills, equivalent to 160 million tonnes of CO2. 

  • Burning waste contributes another 1.2 million tonnes of black carbon emissions yearly, affecting air quality and climate patterns.

Between the lines: There are also immediate health benefits from tackling waste disposal. 

  • Improper landfills can contaminate water sources, such as at Ghana's Agbogbloshie site.

The solutions: No single technology can solve the waste problem. But the way forward is clear.

  • The World Bank says that embracing circular economy principles could reduce plastic waste by 40% to 50% by 2026.

  • Large-scale composting facilities and e-waste recycling plants offer avenues for organic waste utilisation and resource recovery. 

Zoom out: The amount of waste in Africa is already substantial. 

  • The average African generates 0.45 kg per day, lower than the global average at 0.75kg

The driver: Urbanisation and population growth lead to increasing waste piles in cities lacking infrastructure and investment. 

  • Large-scale recycling and recovery technology could cost up to $42 billion in the short term, says the UN.

What’s next: African waste volume is estimated to triple from 174 million tonnes per year in 2016 to around 516 million tonnes by 2050.

  • Only a combination of small-scale community-driven initiatives and large-scale public-private ventures can tackle waste effectively.

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