Addressing Ethiopia's plastic pollution requires both targeting its source and educating the public on proper disposal methods

Updated 06:10 pm EDT, May 20, 2024

Published 12:18 pm EDT, May 19, 2024

Planting Trees Isn’t Enough

By Pomy Hailu

Exploring plastic pollution in Ethiopia: a closer look at environmental impacts and the need for sustainable alternatives.

By Pomy Hailu

Updated 06:10 pm EDT, May 20, 2024

Published 12:18 pm EDT, May 19, 2024

Ethiopia’s headlines were dominated by an ambitious accomplishment in July 2023: planting a record-breaking 566 million trees in a single day. This Green Legacy Initiative, spearheaded by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, aims to tackle deforestation. However, another pressing environmental issue lurks beneath the surface – plastic pollution. While Ethiopia flourishes with its green initiatives, a recent trip to Kenya made me ponder the bigger picture of environmental well-being. 

Addressing Ethiopia's plastic pollution requires both targeting its source and educating the public on proper disposal methods
Addressing Ethiopia's plastic pollution requires both targeting its source and educating the public on proper disposal methods

I was in the town of Diani, which has a relatively refreshing cleanliness (though the heat there deserves a whole other story!). What really struck me was the near absence of plastic bags. 

Supermarkets offered sturdy, reusable shopping bags, often promoting the country itself – a simple yet inspiring sight. This experience stood in stark contrast to Ethiopia, where plastic bags seem to be like the national confetti. 

Everywhere you look, there they are. They’re readily available, often handed out for free with purchases, but this ease of access translates to careless disposal.

Ethiopia Plastic Surge

The numbers paint a concerning picture. Ethiopia’s love affair with plastic has been growing at an alarming rate, with per capita consumption skyrocketing by 11% annually in recent years.

 We’re talking about a jump from a measly 0.6 kg per person in 2007 to a staggering 2.6 kg by 2021. This surge includes not just plastic bags but also a growing reliance on plastic bottles for beverages, as well as excessive plastic packaging for snacks, cosmetics, and other consumer goods.

“Plastic pollution is a multifaceted threat,” says Yodit Yaregal, a Climate Policy Advocate and founder of GOODiT Sustainability Initiative. “It chokes ecosystems, harms human health, and strains our wallets. From clogged waterways to toxic fumes, plastic waste jeopardizes our environment and our well-being. Especially in densely populated cities, where plastic accumulates, and proper waste management is lacking, low-income communities bear the brunt of this crisis.”

 Despite existing bans on flimsy plastic bags, reality paints a different picture. Ineffective enforcement and a lack of awareness regarding waste segregation coexist with a dearth of proper waste management infrastructure.

Sustainable Initiatives

Consumers bear only part of the responsibility for combating plastic pollution, as emphasized by Yodit. She underscores the vital role of packaging producers, noting that “Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs can be a game-changer.” 

These initiatives hold producers financially accountable for managing their products’ end-of-life cycle, incentivizing the development of more sustainable packaging solutions, and reducing plastic consumption at its root. Nevertheless, a comprehensive approach is necessary. 

Addressing plastic pollution requires both targeting its source and educating the public on proper disposal methods. This entails enforcing existing bans more rigorously, enhancing waste management infrastructure, and enhancing collaboration among consumers, producers, and policymakers. Only through such concerted efforts can we effectively curb plastic pollution and pave the way for a cleaner future.

Zenbil is a unique, traditional bag that women in Ethiopia use when shopping - It’s made from a tall grass that is processed using traditional methods and interweaved to create a pattern
Zenbil is a unique, traditional bag that women in Ethiopia use when shopping - It’s made from a tall grass that is processed using traditional methods and interweaved to create a pattern

Thinking of plastic bag solutions reminds me of Zenbil. Before the increased use of plastic bags, we had it right. In the old days, you would have seen Zenbil everywhere. 

Zenbil is a unique, traditional bag that women in Ethiopia use when shopping. It’s made from a tall grass that is processed using traditional methods and interweaved to create a pattern. How about we go back to that? Promoting reusable alternatives like Zenbil can be a massive step towards a more sustainable future.

Learn from Neighbors

Now, the crucial question is, “How can Ethiopia capitalize on the momentum fueled by the Green Legacy movement to also tackle the pressing issue of plastic waste?” 

While Ethiopia’s tree-planting accomplishments are commendable, neglecting the rampant use of plastic would be akin to applying a Band-Aid to a gaping wound. The trees may absorb some carbon dioxide, but plastic pollution continues to harm wildlife, the environment, and potentially even human health. 

Ultimately, this unchecked plastic use hinders the creation of a sustainable and resilient environment. The good news is, we can learn valuable lessons from regional neighbors like Kenya and Rwanda. Kenya’s bold single-use plastic bag ban, implemented in 2017, serves as a great example. 

Sure, there were initial hiccups, as businesses and consumers needed to adjust. But the long-term impact has been significant. The dramatic reduction in plastic waste is undeniable, and the initiative has created a culture of responsible consumption.

Rwanda, another African champion for sustainability, is a country I fell in love with for its cleanliness during a trip a few years ago. They’ve taken a multi-pronged approach. 

Their nationwide ban on plastic bags, coupled with a strong emphasis on reusable alternatives and a robust waste management system, has significantly reduced plastic pollution and made it one of the cleanest countries in the world. 

During my stay, I remember realizing how calm the city of Kigali is. Now, I wonder if cleanliness creates calmness. Ethiopia can leverage these successful models and adapt them to its unique context.

Unplastic Ethiopia

Here’s where things get exciting: There are already a lot of initiatives in Ethiopia working to ensure plastic use is decreased, such as TEKI paper bags, the world’s first paper bag company led by the hearing impaired community. 

They fight against the pollution of plastic bags with Ethiopian sign language, with the dream to convince the Ethiopian government to reserve the paper bag industry to create jobs for young people with disabilities. And youth such as Yodit are also working to create awareness.

Under her GOODiT Sustainability Initiatives, she spearheads the “Unplastic Ethiopia” campaign. As the name suggests, the ‘Unplastic Ethiopia’ campaign tackles the plastic waste crisis by raising awareness and advocating for solutions.

 Unplastic Ethiopia focuses on engaging young people through targeted social media messaging and content. This digital approach aims to educate and empower the next generation to combat plastic pollution. These efforts, coupled with successful strategies from neighboring countries, offer a roadmap to a cleaner future.

Enforce existing bans and phase out plastic bags: Implement stricter enforcement of thin plastic bag bans and gradually phase out all plastic bags, promoting reusable alternatives like the traditional Zenbil bag.

Incentivize innovation and recycling: Encourage the development and production of eco-friendly alternatives and establish a robust waste collection and recycling system with designated disposal areas and incentives for sorting.

Educate and empower: Raise public awareness through targeted campaigns and school programs to highlight the dangers of plastic pollution and promote responsible plastic use.

Ban, Tax, Educate

To effectively address plastic pollution at its source, policymakers can consider successful strategies from neighboring countries. A policy brief by Yodit (A Roadmap to A Healthy Urban Community: Uprooting the Plastic Waste Crisis from Ethiopian Cities) proposes two key recommendations.

A complete ban on single-use plastic bags: This has proven effective in reducing plastic waste in Kenya and Rwanda and can encourage the use of reusable alternatives like the traditional Zenbil bag.

A Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT): This tax on entities using virgin plastics for packaging would moderate plastic use in Ethiopia. The revenue generated could fund waste management projects, particularly in underserved communities.

The Green Legacy Initiative has already ignited a movement that seems to be making an impact. However, ensuring a sustainable fight against climate change in Ethiopia requires addressing both deforestation and plastic pollution. This could may be result in – just imagine – a calmer city, a calmer Addis Ababa!

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