Nairobi — Africa risks being the worst plastic-polluted place on earth within three decades overtaking Asia, says a continental network calling for African contributions to solving the growing threat of marine waste.
"Plastic pollution is real and worrying," says Tony Ribbink, CEO of Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) which is implementing the African Marine Waste Network (AMWN) focusing on preventing marine pollution in Africa.
"Plastic pollution is one of many types of marine pollution and Africa is currently the second most polluted in the world after South East Asia which is turning the situation around," Ribbink tells IPS.
"Predictions are Africa will be worst plastic polluted continent by 2050 if we do not act now."
There is urgency to stem the global plastic tide. Research evidence paints a grim picture of the world's oceans having more plastics than fish in just over 30 years.
Many countries are making progress in their effort to reduce the use of plastics products.
Isabelle Berard Assistant Deputy Minister, International Affairs Branch, Environment & Climate Change, says provinces in Canada have decided to adopt a Plastic Waste strategy to curb the menace of the product. Berard was speaking at the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference currently being held in Kenya, Nairobi.
Professor Geoffrey Wahungu, Kenya's Director General of the National Environmental Authority, says one year after the country banned the use of plastic carrier bags there had been a significant change resulting in cleaner water bodies. He said flooding that used to occur in the past, because drains were blocked by plastic, no longer happens.
The Ocean Atlas published by the German Heinrich Boll Foundation, an independent international green think tank for policy reform and the University of Kiel's Future Ocean Cluster of Excellence, lists the top 20 nations with the worst plastic waste mismanagement around the world. Five of these are in Africa.
China, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Algeria, Turkey, India, Brazil, Pakistan, North Korea, United States, Myanmar and Bangladesh, are responsible for 83 percent of global plastic waste mismanagement. The Ocean Atlas says 80 percent of plastic waste in the oceans comes from dry land, mainly from countries with no or poor waste management.
The AMWN, launched in 2016 for the 38 coastal and island states of Africa, is the first of its kind platform for collaboration, resource and knowledge sharing. The network is seeking African tailored solutions to Africa's marine waste problem.
Eradicating marine waste, specifically plastics, is the key focus of the network, which identifies with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) principles and Sustainable Development Goal #14. SDG#14 is about how to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
If you cannot measure it, you cannot solve it
Oceans and seas cover more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface and provide food, regulate climate, and generate most of the oxygen we breathe. In addition, they support global economy through tourism, fisheries, shipping and trade.
However, despite their importance, U.N. Environment says oceans are facing unprecedented threats, thanks to human activity. Every year an estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste end up in the world's oceans and the U.N. body warns there will more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
The African marine waste conference convened in August 2017, hosted marine experts from Africa and around the world. It identified a number of areas for managing plastic pollution and other waste in Africa.
"We identified the need to measure the plastic pollution," Ribbink says. "Africa has not measured it, so we have developed systems to measure it, including satellite and unmanned aerial vehicles. From what we have seen, we have a serious plastic pollution in our oceans and seas."
The AMWN is developing a marine waste manual for tackling and alleviating Africa's waste problem. A manual will be launched next year to be distributed initially in South Africa and then across the African continent.
Ribbink argues that Africa can turn the tide and stop plastic pollution by putting in place effective management strategies and involving local authorities and the private sector in recycling programmes.
The real issue is changing people's behaviour at work, at school, at home and in recreation places where plastic is discarded, he said. Urban areas are the key sources of plastics that enter rivers and end up at sea.
"Capacity building and education need to be done," Ribbink says. "We have found that teachers in some schools do not know this issue. We want this information in the school curriculum in South Africa and we are developing an education resource book."
As part of the crusade to sharing information on managing plastic waste, the network will launch an African Waste Academy to run certified educational courses. The academy will promote the skills transfer between African and international experts in the area of marine waste management.
A big hurdle to eradicating plastic pollution in Africa is a lack of appreciation of the economic value of plastics, Ribbink says, calling for incentive-based enterprises to encourage collection and recycling of plastics.
Recently 250 organisations, including top packaging producers and retailers, signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to stop plastic waste in their operations. The commitment is a voluntary initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with U.N. environment.
People in the western world get upset when they see sea birds dying and dolphin chocked by plastics, but these are not issues in Africa. Africans worry about poverty, job creation, tourism and putting food on the table but these are related to plastics.
"Many people in poor communities in South Africa do not recognise plastics as a problem; they have grown up with them and see them as part of the environment," he said. "If people can recognise that the same plastics could be source of income and are actually bad for the wellbeing of their families, they will be change."
While plastic waste is a problem, micro plastics are a bigger, more subtle worry for the oceans. Plastics are carried over long distances by ocean currents.
"While the portion of micro plastic that remains afloat might seem small, it is the cause of a large problems with far reaching effects, the Ocean Atlas warns. "Fish mistake it for plankton and eat it... the micro plastic then enters the food chain and eventually winds up on our plates - and in our stomachs."
*Additional reporting by Sam Olukoya in Nairobi.