Why African countries struggle with litter: the link to economic development National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) General Manager Respina Zinyanduko (left) leading an NRZ clean up campaign along George Silundika Street in Bulawayo (File photo)

Mzimkhulu Mbele, [email protected] 

AFRICA has incredible biodiversity and cultural richness. Unfortunately, it is also home to some of the world’s most pervasive littering problems. Poverty, lack of access to resources, and other economic issues contribute to the continent’s struggles with littering.  Despite these challenges, there are still numerous opportunities for African countries to address this issue and create cleaner towns and cities.

Due to limited economic resources, many African countries are unable to adequately address the litter problem. This is because their governments are more focused on more pressing issues, such as poverty, disease, and food security. As such, cleaning up litter is not a priority for many of them.

Adding to this problem is the fact that many African countries lack strict regulations that punish offenders of environmental laws and policies. Without these regulations in place, people are less likely to care about reducing their own waste or properly disposing of it. This leads to more litter being left behind on roadsides and other public spaces.

Furthermore, infrastructure is often inadequate or non-existent. Trash collection can be difficult when infrastructure is low or limited.  This increases the likelihood of litter being left behind due to lack of proper systems for disposal and collection.

The reasons many African countries struggle with litter are connected to the continuing issues of economic development. Despite having the capacity to improve, many countries have yet to create an economy that can adequately provide its citizens with the basic needs, such as access to clean water or reliable energy sources. This means that resources are dedicated to these areas instead of environmental issues such as litter.

The result is that even though leaders understand that environment-friendly policies are important, they may not be a priority when basic needs have yet to be satisfied. This leads to people — and unfortunately, much of the government — paying less attention to things like waste management and more on things like food, shelter and surviving to see the next day.

Ultimately, the best route for African countries to succeed in their efforts in managing litter is to first foster  a healthy economy that allows for improving basic needs and then developing better policies around environmental protection.

It is difficult and nearly impossible for someone to worry or care about litter when they don’t know what they will eat for dinner. Add to that, we lack the necessary infrastructure to manage waste properly. As a consequence of deprioritising the litter problem, African governments do not invest in developing waste management systems such as public litter bins or recycling centres.

Without these management systems, much of the waste created is left untreated in open landfills or on streets and waterways. Even with efforts such as educational campaigns, clean-up campaigns and new initiatives, this issue can be difficult to overcome due to the sheer magnitude of waste generated each day. 

Corruption and poor governance are two major contributors to the rampant litter problem in some African countries. Officials are not held accountable for failing to enforce legislation on waste disposal, allowing for the careless disposing of trash and the illegal dumping of hazardous materials. Furthermore, inadequate infrastructure further contributes to the litter problem as citizens lack access to effective waste disposal methods. As a result, many people turn to burning their rubbish or throwing it in rivers or on roadsides instead of disposing of it responsibly.

The lack of economic development also plays a role here, as governments prioritise other issues such as trying to put food on tables and providing employment rather than focusing on waste management systems. It is also challenging to introduce effective regulations when most local authorities lack adequate training and resources.

It is clear that economic development plays a major role in how litter is managed. Yet, there are still many solutions to the litter problem that can be implemented on an individual and community level. Although these solutions definitely won’t solve the litter problem in Africa, they lessen it.

Grassroots actions can offer short-term benefits such as keeping the area around immediate living spaces cleaner, while also helping break ingrained habits of disposing of waste carelessly.

Regular and large clean up events done with pure intentions have a big impact on the local community. Not only does this provide an efficient way to manage litter, but it also encourages civic engagement and raises awareness about the issue. 

Recycling facilities can help reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and increase the sustainability of resources available in Africa. Implementing recycling programs and teaching people about responsible waste disposal can help improve the continent’s environmental problems caused by littering over time.

Education is key when it comes to understanding littering effects. Outreach events are especially important, as they allow people to learn about how treating their environment with respect can have a positive outcome for everyone.

Some of the other strategies to manage and reduce littering include rewarding citizens who collect and properly dispose of their trash and introducing strict legislation that penalises those who do not comply with proper waste disposal practices. 

By taking action now, African nations can have an impact on reducing their litter burden – both now and in the future – while simultaneously helping protect their precious natural resources from further degradation caused by improper waste management practices.

By improving economies, providing incentives for citizens to properly dispose of their waste, and implementing solutions such as litter traps, African countries can make significant progress towards reducing litter. With the right approach, African countries can put the issue of litter in the rear-view mirror and take strides towards a brighter future.

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