BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — What to do with 800,000 flip-flops washed up on the shoreline?
In Kenya, social enterprise Ocean Sole has a solution. The group gathers that number of the cheap plastic shoes off local beaches every year, turning them into artwork – hand-sculpted, multi-colored turtles, giraffes and reef fish are among the more popular designs. The art sells internationally, and shines a light on one small element of the plastic pollution problem that’s plaguing our oceans.
Sunday is Earth Day, and the theme for this year is “Ending Plastic Pollution.” Plastic’s popularity is in large part due to its lightness and durability. But if it’s not disposed of carefully, these attributes are a dangerous combination: the material tends to make its way into water systems and eventually into the ocean, where it can remain for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before breaking down, wreaking havoc on marine life and ecosystems in the meantime.
Recent discoveries of floating masses of microplastic in the Pacific Ocean – one reportedly the size of Mexico – have drawn attention to some of the consequences of plastic habits. In December last year, 193 countries signed a U.N resolution to eliminate plastic pollution from the world’s oceans.
But it is easier to manage waste in some places than others. Last year, a study was released showing that 90 percent of the plastic in the world’s oceans comes from just 10 rivers – eight in Asia, and two in Africa (the Nile and the Niger).
While it is difficult to access comprehensive data on the topic, it seems that waste management in these areas has not kept pace with the rapid development that is occurring around them, and the high populations living in close proximity to the rivers intensifies the issue.
In this context, a recent study, “Challenges and emerging solutions to the land-based plastic waste issue in Africa” reveals important insights about where waste is produced and where it goes within and around the African continent, and shows some of the creative solutions that are emerging to deal with it.
RIVERS OF PLASTIC
Population-wise, Africa is the fastest-growing continent in the world. Much of this growth is occurring in coastal areas, and close to freshwater systems: the Niger, Congo, Zambezi and Nile river basins encompass some of the biggest cities in the world.
Meanwhile, the middle class is expanding in many African countries, and people are consuming more plastic items and products wrapped in plastic than ever before – including drinking water, which in many cities is sold packaged in single-use plastic sachets and bags.
Waste management infrastructure is often inadequate to deal with the increasing volumes of plastic entering the system.
“Many of the ways that people have managed waste historically, like burying or burning, work just fine when you use biodegradable materials like ceramics and banana leaves,” said paper co-author and University of Georgia environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck, “But plastic is a whole different story,” and people don’t always have the knowledge, resources or opportunities to deal with it appropriately.
The risks to human health, as well as the broader environment, are manifold, she says. Improperly disposed of, plastic can create areas of standing water in which mosquitoes to breed, enabling the spread of diseases. It can also clog drains in heavy rains, causing flooding.
After entering the waterways, a lot of this refuse will likely make its way to the ocean.
Once in the ocean, the waste joins with significant volumes of plastic from shipping and fishing. Given that subsistence fishing is an important element of people’s livelihoods in many parts of the region – for example, in Tanzania, people get an average of 70 percent of their protein from fish – plastic pollution represents a risk to food security, as it can seriously affect the workings of marine ecosystems.
While the challenges to reducing plastic waste are multiple, numerous practical and creative responses like Ocean Sole are already in evidence. For example, TakaTaka in Nairobi, Kenya addresses waste collection unaffordability and soil fertility issues in one go, by getting their clients to separate out organic and inorganic waste for collection. They make compost and sell it to farmers, and either sell the inorganic waste to recycling centers or, in the case of plastic bottles, make cups which they also then sell. In South Africa, All Women Recycling makes a gift box called the Kliketyklikbox out of plastic bottles, and Repurpose Schoolbags make bags for schoolchildren out of durable PVC billboard material.
Organizations and governments are also looking further upstream and curbing the production and consumption of plastic products in the first place, in line with global calls to move from the “take-make-dispose” model of production to a more “circular economy”, where products are designed to be reused or recycled.
At country level, bans and taxes on plastic bags are widespread. Mauritania banned them in 2013, following the realization that around 70 percent of livestock in the capital, Nouakchott, were killed by eating plastic. A number of other countries have followed suit since, while Cameroon and South Africa have instituted taxes.
Like many environmental issues, plastic pollution doesn’t obey national boundaries, so regional frameworks like the African Marine Waste Network (AMWN), which draws together government stakeholders, intergovernmental organizations, private sector, academia and civil society aiming to better coordinate waste reduction efforts, are also extremely important.
While the problem is clearly global in nature and reach, the solutions need to be locally-led, Jambeck said.
“Solid waste generation and management really has a lot to do with culture. People don’t define waste in the same way in different parts of the world – or even within the same household! My husband and I may not have the same definition of something to get rid of and something to keep.
“So when we say somewhere is lacking in infrastructure, it doesn’t mean that the infrastructure that develops in Africa to manage waste is going to look like the infrastructure in the United States,” she added. “These localized, culturally-relevant solutions that we’re seeing are very important.”
Find out more about sustainable business practices at the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum 2018 Investment Case Symposium
Find out more about restoration initiatives throughout Africa at the Global Landscapes Forum GLF Nairobi summit, August 29-30, 2018. Click here