When African environment ministers met in Senegal in mid-September, they made one of the most important decisions in the history of waste management in Africa. The ministers laid the foundation to end the open dumping and burning of waste. Putting this decision into action will have multiple economic, environmental and social implications. It could save millions of lives on the continent.
In many African cities, up to 90% of waste is dumped in the open. Much of it is burned, sending plumes of noxious pollutants into homes, lungs and the environment. These emissions include dioxins, hydrocarbons and black carbon, all highly toxic climate pollutants. Decomposing organic waste also generates methane, which triggers open burning and is a major contributor to climate change. The impact on people and the environment is severe. Exposure to air pollution causes more than 1.2 million premature African deaths annually. Studies of children living near major dumpsites have reported chronic respiratory, gastrointestinal and dermatological illnesses.
Apart from health and environmental impacts, ministers recognized the huge economic opportunities in better waste management. Up to 80% of solid waste generated in African cities is recyclable, with an estimated value of $8 billion each year. Yet only about 11% is currently recycled, mostly by the informal sector. It indicates a major opportunity to create jobs and livelihoods from the reuse of waste.
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