Is Paper packaging replacing plastic in Africa?

The concept of a circular economy is becoming more popular and inviting more countries in Africa to meet the world measures in reducing and controlling the waste of plastic materials.

It is a big concern what happens to the plastic produced and used in Africa and how to manage their harmful effect on the nature and environment of this huge continent.

Plastic is a complex, synthetic material made from rearranging naturally-occurring polymers. The resulting product, which is present in many of the products that are daily consumed, is a durable, light-weight material that takes 100 years to decompose wherever they are thrown; in landfills, on the coast or in the ocean.


The war on plastic in East Africa

Most of the East African countries, like Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, have taken the decision to reduce the damage on the environment from the use of the polythene and polypropylene plastic bags trashed in billions every year on their coast and in urban areas……

In Kenya, for example, manufacturing, importing or trading in plastic bags is not allowed anymore.

It could be considered a crime that can lead to a four-year jail sentence or companies are fined, in case they break the law and rules imposed...

On a consumer level, using plastic bags could cost a fine and/or a year in jail.

In fact, this strict law which was enforced three years ago, end of 2017, was considered as the most punitive government stance on single-use plastic bags in the world...

There is no doubt now that this yielded in tangible results, one of which was less plastic bags being discovered in the bellies of cows slaughtered in abattoirs in Kenya’s urban areas. As mentioned by the National Environment Agency, almost half of the cows slaughtered in urban areas had plastic bags in their stomachs, due to the fact that they were grazing in areas polluted by plastic bags that are randomly disposed every year in Kenya.

In Nigeria, the government is trying to impose the ban on plastic bag use since many years. The attempts to vote for the law that will ban the manufacture and use of plastic in Nigeria passed its second reading in the Senate.

In the event of a ban, it will not be unlike the situation with Lagos’ transport sector where law enforcement is usually only then followed by measures to ameliorate any destabilization that arises.

In Uganda, few years back, the government of Uganda announced its intention to impose strict rules in order to reduce the plastic bags usage and to minimize its impact on environment. At that time, when rumors of an outright ban on the use of plastic bags grew louder most of the people considered that as unachievable and others were trying to understand the impact on their daily life.

Apparently, things moved in the right directions and some of the entrepreneurs were already looking forward to the life after plastic bags and started manufacturing paper bags ….

In Uganda, most of the plastic bags used in the market are about to be replaced by paper bags.


The other side of paper packaging as an alternative

One of the measures to take by local authorities is to push investors to pull out or completely cut off funding if they do not switch to sustainable paper packaging.

It is no doubt, that this is a step in the right direction, it is also believed that the government needs to put sufficient measures in place to ensure that when the switch happens, and be sure that there are enough companies and resources locally in order to have a smooth effect of switching.

Despite being far away from plastic when it comes to its environmental impact, there are still many concerns about the use of paper as alternatives to plastic packaging.

The water scarcity and lack of raw materials is among the constraints that can slow down the shift to the paper based packaging material. As an example, a single sheet of paper requires between five to 10 liters of water to produce. Being in Africa, we are not mentioning about the sustainability in the raw material supply starting from the process of cutting and cooking the trees that are used to produce the pulp; this is limited to a very few pulp mills that may exist in the region.

But on a global level, this has to be considered and moreover take into account the amount of carbon emission that the production process results in.

Many companies in Nigeria started to explore the potential for a change in packaging material that can be based on paper and cardboard instead of plastic based material. Among others, is the Paper Packaging Company which already tried to increase its capacity but is facing the shortage in raw material due to unavailability of supplies from local paper mills. So far, this company has been able to replace over 12 million plastic packaging with its wide paper packaging range of products.

A glimpse for the future

It is believed that even if the industry is ready for a switch from plastic to paper packaging, there are always the threats from internal and external pressures that have be faced in order for any law to take effect.

Now, with countries like Rwanda and Kenya successfully enforcing bans and as an economic hub on the east side of the continent, paper packaging become a safer alternative compared to plastic.

On the other hand, paper production and sourcing packaging paper with acceptable quality is more complex than providing plastics in some of the counties in Africa.

There will be a serious challenge for many paper bag producers if this switch in packaging production process does not occur in a smooth way and if sourcing paper from local paper producers is not secured on a long term basis. Like in Nigeria, as an example, there are few paper machines, but their production output and products quality could not match with the requirements of the paper bag manufacturers. Most of these machines in Nigeria are not in continuous operation, due to the shortage in raw material and power supply.

In few words, the benefits of Paper based packaging material as a replacement of plastic will for sure outweigh any shortcomings in the future of African environment protection




Is Paper packaging replacing plastic in Africa?