We will not be able to keep plastics out of the oceans until poor communities around the world are provided with adequate waste collection and recycling services. By setting up collection and recycling projects, the charity WasteAid is making a positive impact on both marine plastic pollution and on the health and wellbeing of communities in the developing world.
Single-use plastics are on their way out. Here in the UK, people have been galvanised into action by the shocking footage of marine animals injured or killed by plastic, and by the realisation that in thirty years’ time our oceans could contain more plastic than fish.
The Government has proposed legislation to outlaw plastic stirrers, cotton buds and drinking straws, and at the same time, businesses and consumers are making a concerted effort to reduce their use of plastic packaging and switch to recyclable and reusable alternatives. Some have even taken up “plogging” — jogging while picking up plastic waste — along beaches to rid them of drinks bottles, plastic cups and other litter. These worthwhile efforts are having an impact locally but if the tide of ocean plastics is to be turned back, action is needed on a global scale.
Worldwide, only 14% of plastic is recycled, 42% of plastic waste is landfilled, and the remaining 32% escapes to the environment. Most of this “leakage” occurs in developing economies where waste management has not kept pace with economic growth. The top 20 polluting rivers, mostly located in Asia, account for 67% of land-based plastics reaching the ocean. As long as these regions lack an adequate waste collection infrastructure, their plastic waste will continue to pollute the world’s oceans and will cancel out any efforts by countries such as the UK to keep plastic out of the environment.
Rivers of waste
John Nelson of the Environmental Systems Research Institute has created an eye-catching series of maps called Rivers of Plastic. They graphically illustrate the huge tonnages of waste which enter the oceans from the rivers which contribute most to ocean plastic. Four of these are in China and one in Africa. The Yangtse alone is estimated to deposit 912 tonnes of plastic a day into the ocean — equivalent to the weight of 228 Asian elephants. Perhaps in the light of this, we can better understand the decision of the Chinese Government to ban imports of poor quality plastic waste.
Communities around the world are forced to live in squalor due to the absence of waste collection services. Many have no option but to dump their waste in uncontrolled tips, from which it can easily find its way into the rivers and oceans. It is not only marine animals, but people who are suffering serious harm to health as a result of poor waste management. For example, the residents of Essa Nagi in Islamabad suffer chronic gastroenteritis as a result of the uncontrolled dumping of waste in their area. Around one in three people globally lack adequate waste management services. In places where sanitary conditions are very poor, the lining of the intestine does not develop properly in children and they are unable to absorb the nutrients from food, even if they have a decent meal. This has serious developmental impacts, both physical and mental.
WasteAid is an independent charity set up in the UK by waste management professionals to share practical waste management skills with communities in low-income countries. They set up small recycling training centres to empower marginalised people (often older women, unemployed youths and people with disabilities) to manage their community’s waste sustainably. They collect and process low-value materials such as flexible plastics and organic wastes, making useful products and generating an income. Importantly, they also train local trainers so that the skills can be passed on to other communities.
WasteAid in the Gambia
In the coastal town of Gunjur in the Gambia, plastic waste is either burned or deposited in informal dumps. Here, livestock can ingest it, leading to starvation and a premature and painful death. If plastic is thrown into riverbeds or drainage channels, it can lead to flooding which contributes to the seasonal spike in water-borne and mosquito-borne diseases.
WasteAid has set up a plastic recycling project in Gunjur which transforms plastic waste into paving tiles. The tiles are more durable than concrete and can be sold at a lower price. Rather than burning or dumping their plastic waste, the villagers are learning recycling skills which they can then pass on to other local communities. WasteAid will be analysing all the different types of plastic that require disposal and working to find markets or processes for as much as possible, with the aim of ensuring none reaches the ocean.
WasteAid in Kenya
Kwa Muhia, on the shore of Lake Naivasha, is an informal settlement with no waste management provision. It is an unhealthy place to live, especially for the children who play on the waste dumps. Moreover, the conservation status of Lake Naivasha is under threat, partly as a result of plastic pollution from the community. WasteAid will work with a local team to organise a waste collection service for a range of materials and process those materials into useful products that can be sold in local markets. They will be raising awareness of “waste wise” behaviour in the local community so that people understand the benefits of the new “rubbish rules”.
WasteAid’s work in the Gambia and Kenya has been funded by the UK Government through the Small Charities Challenge Fund.
UK Aid Match
WasteAid has been awarded matched funding from the UK Government for a third project, aimed at preventing marine plastic pollution. The Widening the Net programme will train people around the world to create green jobs from plastic recycling. By capturing ocean-bound plastic and turning it into useful products, people will be empowered to support themselves in the long term. Trainees will create green jobs, keep the environment healthy and prevent marine plastic pollution.
All donations from the British public received before 31July will help train people to recycle plastic into useful products, and will be doubled by the UK Government, up to £2 million. To find out more visit www.wasteaid.org .
WasteAid’s partners in the UK
WasteAid encourages British businesses to support its work as part of their CSR social responsibility commitments. Investment in waste management in developing countries is excellent value for money and contributes towards all of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular:
Health, safety and wellbeing
The environment (land, air, water, and climate).
WasteAid offers tailored partnership programmes and will visit organisations to talk about the global waste challenge and the opportunities to make a difference.
Last reviewed 30 April 2019