By on April 1, 2010 in Africa, Environmental

Rapid Urbanization

Urbanization can be a great thing for society; it can introduce people to a modern way of life, encourage them to learn new skills and provide an overall greater level of awareness. Urbanization also has its problems; it can grow out of control, become weakened due to poor management and ultimately become counterproductive.

One of the great challenges developing urban centers in Africa face is the increased amount of garbage that they produce. Although Africa is among the least urbanized regions of the world, their rates of urbanization are among the highest in the world. There are at least 24 cities in Africa that have a population of over 1 million people. Much of the urbanization that has occurred has been rapid and uncontrolled, leading to solid, liquid and toxic wastes that have been poorly managed.

The waste has created a health crisis in many of Africa’s urban centers. Furthermore, it has spoiled much of the natural beauty that once existed there. Garbage in Africa is truly a plague that needs to be managed carefully.

Health Hazard

A visit to any major urban center in Africa today will quickly reveal the enormity of the waste management problem. From uncontrolled piles of garbage in dumps, to heaps of trash littered on the side of the road; the situation is dire.

The volume of waste is not necessarily the problem – it’s the inability to manage it that is. The root of the problem is a lack of social consensus and finances to build the proper infrastructure to take care of the problem. In the country of Nigeria, the population of more than 100 million produces 2.2 million tons of waste per year. They are in no way equipped to handle the processing of that much trash. Landfills pile up, and when they go untreated, the waste eventually seeps into the water supply creating a major health hazard. In the city of Dar es Salaam, only 24 percent of daily waste is even collected. They too are frequently at risk of contaminating their water supply. In the Zambian capital of Lusaka, there is virtually no system for controlling waste. Garbage is dumped indiscriminately in the street. Much of the waste is used up charcoal, since none of the houses have electricity. Small children walk and play in garbage-strewn areas on a regular basis.

While all waste that is unprocessed, possesses a potential threat to the population, there are specific kinds of waste that are particularly dangerous.

E-Waste Dangers

When it comes to electronics, “out with the old and in with the new” is a frequent pattern. While the developed world is getting better about disposing of electronic components responsibly, many cities in Africa are experiencing the dire effects of e-waste.

The accumulation of old and discarded computers is a huge environmental problem with serious health implications. Greenpeace recently took soil and water samples from a site near a dump in Ghana. Their findings included chemicals like thalades and dioxins, generally found in computers, which were 100 times above normal levels. These chemicals are known to harm reproductive systems in children as well as cause cancer. Ghana is known to be a dumping ground for unwanted computers, TV’s and other electronics. A local port receives shiploads of electronics on a daily basis – many of which come from all over the world. By law, the equipment is supposed to be in working order, though much of it is not. Unusable items are discarded in dumps instead of being recycled, or disposed of correctly.

Most African governments do not have a program or a plan for dealing with e-waste. There are often few laws for public health sanitation, and the laws that are in place are not enforced well enough. Some developed nations, like Britain, have launched investigations into whether they are illegally dumping computers in Africa. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States has come under investigation for contributing to illegal e-waste disposal in Africa. But even as foreign governments look into the problem, tons and tons of waste still arrives there.

The only long-term solution for the waste problem in Africa is to make better use of resources, dispose of hazardous materials in a proper manner, and develop a widespread system for reusing and recycling materials.

Reuse, Not Refuse

In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, it is estimated that only 1 percent of plastic waste produced in the city is recycled. But the country’s National Environment Authority is striving to do something about it.

In recent years, they have placed an extra tax on plastic bags. They have also banned plastics made of materials thinner than 30 millimeters, which are considered to be less likely to be recycled. Recycling centers in the city have reused plastic to create mattresses, pillows, tiles, fence posts, lampshades, garbage cans, handbags and a host of other items. Many of the plastic products are more durable than traditional materials; plastic fence posts are termite proof and plastic tiles last much longer than clay. Recycled products are generally very economical, which is an important factor for most Kenyans who live on less than $2 a day. Workers at recycling plants in Nairobi have also found innovative ways to use other waste materials. They make charcoal out of sawdust and use many different types of biodegradable waste as manure.

They have even helped to train many women’s groups and youth groups in their skills.

Education & Consensus

Urbanization is occurring rapidly in Africa. High volumes of refuse are plaguing large urban centers and the situation is getting out of control. Educating people on the importance of recycling garbage, as well as developing a consensus on how best to implement recycling goals, is imperative. It won’t take much effort, because when people realize the value of living in a clean environment, they want to get involved and do their part.


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