Plastic Waste and Forest Conservation

By Arthur Sikopo

It is a common practice for people to throw waste in undesignated areas in most parts of the country, especially in Lusaka, and even worse, among road users through the windows of their moving vehicles without a thought of who is responsible for their undesired action. Sadly, most of the waste products discarded in this way are made from non-biodegradable material.

Plastic pollution is a global problem faced by many countries, Zambia included, and is responsible for many environmental challenges impacting human well-being and the management of natural resources.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the world today produces about 400 million tonnes of non-biodegradable waste in the form of plastic yearly. UNEP is further worried that since the 1970s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. 

“If historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050. We have also seen a worrying shift towards single-use plastic products, items that are meant to be thrown away after a single short use. Approximately, 36 percent of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products such as food and beverage containers, approximately 85 percent of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste,” reads the UNEP report.

Indeed, plastic waste is responsible for a huge negative impact on the environment. Among the most common impacts of plastic waste in Zambia include choking of public drainage and sewer systems which causes flooding and overflow of unwanted and hazardous materials openly. One of the direct causes of foodborne diseases such as Cholera.

Various stakeholders, both profit and non-profit entities, are today on the ground picking, buying, aggregating plastic waste, and packaging it into products that can be reused or recycled. These products could be those used to store food and other commodities, healthcare materials, manufacturing plants’ products, building materials, decorations, and road pavers among many others. All these efforts contribute to reducing the effects of plastic waste in the country, with more interventions required to achieve impact.

Environmental and Heritage expert, Kagosi Mwamulowe, notes that plastic waste in Zambia is a huge problem for forests and the environment in general, economically, and culturally.

According to Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2022, 0.22 percent of tree cover loss occurred in parts of Zambia where the dominant drivers of loss resulted in deforestation. 

In Zambia, the top three regions were responsible for 58 percent of all tree cover loss between 2001 and 2022 of which North-Western province had the most tree cover loss at 576 kha compared to an average of 225 kha. The remaining two are Copperbelt at 399 kha and Luapula at 320 kha.

Global Forest Watch, an online and real-time forest eye says there were 71,698 deforestation alerts reported in Zambia between 7 December 2023 and 14 December 2023, covering a total of 861 hectares of which 1.3 percent were high confidence alerts detected by a single system and none were alerts detected by multiple systems.

Drivers of permanent deforestation in the country are as a result of Urbanization (22ha in 2001 and 247ha in 2021) and Commodity Driven Deforestation (2ha in 2001 and 347ha in 2021).

Yes! “Urbanization and commodity-driven deforestation” and that is where cutting down trees for furniture production comes in. From the records, it is clear the 10-year rate has some significant differences. This is happening as demand grows through factors like furniture demands and an increase in population.

The Zambian government has in its laws, set up guidelines concerning plastics, all in a bid to reduce plastic use and eventual plastic pollution a naturally rich land mass that is landlocked, away from the sea.

Among the common and prominent laws, alongside protocols on environmental protection like Sustainable Development Goals, Zambia has implemented the Environmental Management Regulations Statutory Instrument (SI) 65 of 2018 which bans the use of plastic carrier bags and plastic-related materials below 30 microns in thickness. Furthering to this, the country has committed to these laws at a global level through the Conference of All Parties (COP), a global annual conference aimed at addressing climate change and its driving factors. This year, during COP28, emphasis was made, “to pass a resolution for an instrument on plastic pollution that is based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic. Not an instrument that deals with plastic pollution through recycling or waste management alone.”

Circling back to stakeholders contributing to the reduction of plastic waste around the country, in Lusaka, there is Newtech Recycling Limited, an organization founded by a young Zambian, Castro Shinobe.

Castro has been passionate about environmental matters which led him to develop an interest in plastic recycling some years back. Today he is living part of his dream as his company through the help of like-minded entities, is steadily growing in that area.

In an intriguing discussion with Castro, he explained how plastic recycling has the potential to help reduce certain environmental challenges, deforestation being among them.

This beckons the question: Can plastics help in reducing deforestation and ensure forest conservation and preservation?

In a deeper conversation, Castro revealed the possibilities of plastics helping to reduce deforestation and forest preservation through the production of certain products that today depend on wood from our forests. He brought out the fact that his company is now manufacturing school desks, outdoor chairs, and tables, all made from recycled plastics, and is very confident that if this could be done at a larger scale, tree cutting to make products like desks, tables, chairs among others would be reduced.

“We have some schools that have bought desks from us. We have had some discussions with the United Nations (UN), which has been helping the government in procuring desks for schools. But the UN indicated that in the circular that they have, the description of desks that should be procured by them, for the government, should be a particular kind and thickness of wood, so by us producing a desk out of plastic, they would be going out of the description that has been given,” Castro said.

Castro further noted that environmental challenges that come with cutting down trees can be averted to some extent because waste material would now be used to replace trees greatly contributing to a balanced ecological system.

“So, if we could use waste material to produce the desks, then we are saving the environment and saving the trees and at the end of the day addressing matters of deforestation and other environmental factors that come with cutting down of trees. Desks that would tentatively last for four to five years, would then last 10 to 20 years if made out of plastics. So not only are we addressing the waste problem, but we are also conserving our environment and saving our trees. Imagine how many trees would be cut in a bid to meet that target of 1 million desks,” he pointed out.  

Certainly, as put by Castro, recycling plastic waste can help save forests and have some impact, either minimal or not, reducing deforestation by lessening the demand for raw materials. Recycling plastic waste reduces the need for virgin plastic production and this, in turn, reduces the demand for fossil fuels used in the extraction and processing of raw materials like oil and natural gas. By lowering the demand for these resources, less deforestation occurs as there is less need for clearing land for resource extraction.

Another factor is that there would be decreased greenhouse gas emissions. Experts say the production of plastic from raw materials emits a significant amount of greenhouse gases and by recycling plastic waste, the need for new plastic production decreases, leading to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Lower greenhouse gas emissions contribute to mitigating climate change, which can help protect forests from adverse impacts like droughts, wildfires, and pests.

Further, there is reduced litter and pollution as when plastic waste is not properly managed, it often ends up in landfills or improperly disposed of in the environment, including forests. This litter and pollution can harm ecosystems and trees being major features in forests would certainly be greatly affected, which Mr Mwamulowe agrees with.

 He notes that recycling reduces environmental degradation and to some greater extent contributes to increased GDP for the nation.

“Instead of destroying the vegetation, you are now using other means to produce useful items from already available material to generate income, and by doing that you are contributing to one of the pillars of sustainable development that talks of diversification of the economy,” he said.

Looking ahead, the Environmental and Heritage expert is of the view that “Recycling is the way to go because it is a way in which you minimize the temptation of touching vegetation that will at the end of the day affect various aspects of life, both social and economic, including the cultural aspect of life. When I say ‘cultural’, I mean some traditional ceremonies depend on the use of forestry products.”

From enthusiasts and advocates to experts, individual nations to a collective, and through to international organizations, indications that proper plastic waste management has a huge bearing on improving human well-being and saving natural resources reducing deforestation and other related environmental issues.

Indeed, “our planet is choking on plastic” and there is a greater need for invaluable efforts to be undertaken by all, to turn non-biodegradable waste into other usable products that would lead to the continuation of a well-balanced ecosystem.


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