We are drowning in our own waste. Literally. 

The industrial revolution transformed our economies and our standard of living globally can be attributed to the success of this. Our speed of use of finite resources has exponentially grown and today we are all suffering the consequences.

This is simply not a sustainable way of life for both the environment and humanity.

Over the last century, we discovered how to produce synthetic polymers – exploiting carbon atoms from petroleum and other fossil fuels. These strong, lightweight and flexible polymers make what we know today as plastic. Plastic has always challenged traditional materials and essentially replaced steel, paper, glass and wood. In the 1960s, we began to realise the environmental challenges that plastic poses and since then our anxiety has continued to grow – even though our consumption of it has yet to slow down. Even with a simple solution – recycling – most of our plastic waste still ends up in landfills, drainage, and oceans. Although recycling is important, it is a false assumption that this will make a difference to the catastrophic levels of plastic contamination – granted that many countries have yet to establish formalized plastic waste management infrastructure.

Nonetheless, more people today are reimagining the global economy and envisioning how to change the way we consume. One approach is changing from a linear to a circular economy. What we have to understand is that the global economy is dependent on finite resources; a circular economy will recuperate the value of products and the demand for energy expenditure and chemical use will be reduced tremendously.

During a recent visit to the Côte d’Ivoire, I came across the employment of a circular economy project led by UNICEF. Akin to many of the urbanized cities in Africa, it’s capital city, Abidjan, faces severe issues with plastic pollution and waste management which predominantly affects low-income communities and impoverished regions. Only 5% of plastic is recycled and with increasing urbanisation, this is becoming a growing problem with its impact on the environment and civilians; 60% of childhood malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia cases are associated with improper waste management and blocked water drains, as a result providing fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other parasites. This causes fundamental problems within vulnerable communities, especially for children.

UNICEF Cote D’Ivoire has collaborated with a Colombian social enterprise called Conceptos Plasticos with the hope of tackling the issue of plastic pollution through an innovative, scalable model of recycling plastic waste into building bricks for construction of infrastructure for schools, health centres and latrines. Currently, collectors of plastic who are mainly women, informally collect this waste and sell to intermediaries which are not necessarily guaranteed as there is little demand for it. However, with this project, a market will be created where individuals can benefit from selling plastic directly to Conceptos Plasticos using a “Cash 4 Trash” initiative. One of the major benefits of this scheme includes an increase in affordable schooling infrastructure that will provide more children access to education in a conducive learning environment. Furthermore, this will create an inclusive plastic recycling economy which will create more jobs and encourage groups of women and young adults to engage in plastic waste collection whilst simultaneously cleaning the environment.

Climate-related disasters are becoming increasingly frequent globally which are costing the economy billions of dollars every year and it takes one look at the devastating effects of, for example, Cyclone Idai to recognize the catastrophic consequences. It is apparent that climate change is affecting every single one of us today, so it is imperative that leaders and all stakeholders implement change in economic development and reduce their carbon footprint.

For developing economies like Côte d’Ivoire there is still much time and ample opportunity to implement social enterprises such as Conceptos Plasticos for sustainable development. Concepts like this meet numerous Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the United Nations from alleviating poverty, providing quality education to addressing climate action and cleaning up our polluted oceans. It is time for the private and public sector to take accountability and pave the way to multilaterally building a habitable environment for humanity. So, it is with no doubt that I strongly conclude a Circular Economy is the future.

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