Imagine a world with dead oceans; no coral reefs, no fish, no whales, no dolphins, basically no underwater ecosystem. The ocean contributes 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe in and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
It also provides a sixth of the animal protein we eat. Dead oceans would drastically destabilise families that depend on this ecosystem for their livelihoods, reduce the oxygen supply, create a shortage of food and reduce foreign exchange that would be earned from marine tourism.
While there are several factors that threaten the existence of life, plastic is arguably its biggest threat. It takes 500 (or more) years for a plastic bag to degrade. Even then, the bags do not break down completely.
It is estimated that about 12 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year and that over 100,000 whales, seals, and turtles die every year as a result of eating or being trapped by plastic bags. In addition, the ratio of fish to plastic is expected to reach 1:1 by 2050. This will have devastating effects on the entire natural ecosystem if no action is taken to control plastic waste leaking into the ocean.
Plastic is not entirely destructive. On the contrary, it plays a critical role in the modern economy due to its affordability, durability and versatility. The main challenge is caused by single-use plastic.
The past 50 years have seen a surge in plastic production from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and this is expected to double over the next 20 years, with only 14 percent of plastic produced being recyclable.
As elsewhere in the world, numerous African governments – at local, municipal and national levels –have banned or attempted to ban the sale of plastic bags. Whilst this is well intended, simply banning or introducing taxes on plastics will not solve the problem. Innovative plastic management would be a more viable and sustainable alternative.
Though in its infancy, Africa’s plastic waste management is largely buoyed by the necessity to create local solutions to local challenges. An increasing number of African entrepreneurs have found a way to turn a local challenge into a business opportunity. Take for instance Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane from South Africa who founded Repurpose School Bags, an initiative borne from the idea of providing affordable school bags to local children in their community.
The 2014 Anzisha Prize runners-up create the school bags from recycled plastic shopping bags with the design including reflective strips for visibility when the children are walking to and from school and a solar panel in the flap which provides the added benefit of lighting which the students can use when studying at night.
In Kenya, Lorna Rutto through her company Eco-post, has created thousands of fencing posts, road signs and furniture from plastic waste, removing more than 2.5 million kilos of plastic waste from the environment. She has created over 2,000 direct and indirect job opportunities and saved over 450 acres of forests.
Private institutions such as Ocean Sole have come up with creative ways to conserve the ocean. They recycle flip-flops (slippers) that are found littered on beaches and in the waterways of Kenya to create artwork featuring elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, dolphins, sharks and turtles in an effort to clean the beaches as well as put into perspective the amount of waste that finds its way into the ocean. In yet another example, a Kenyan firm has recently put up a plant that converts end of life of plastic waste, into commercial synthetic fuel oil.
Plastic management overall is not a responsibility that can be placed on a single institution, person or country. It needs to be a collaborative action by different players challenging the way we handle and think about waste products from the manufacturer, to the policy maker, to the user.
This is why we at The Flipflopi Project, an environmental advocacy initiative, are championing sustainable consumption and management of plastics through a ‘plastic revolution’.
We are in the process of constructing a traditional sailing boat made from over 5 million plastic bags we’ve collected from Kenyan beaches and around 200,000 flip-flops which we will sail 5,000kms from Lamu, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa to encourage social change and promote innovative thinking around reducing, re-using and recycling plastic.
Kenya’s impressive steps towards the complete eradication of plastic bags is hugely positive, but if supported by innovation and social engagement with plastics issues, it has the potential to become truly transformative. Plastic bag pollution is something that Africa has suffered from and grappled with for far too long; but we have a unique opportunity now to capitalise on growing public awareness and champion a plastic revolution!
Mr Morison is the Founder, The Flipflopi Project, a #Plasticrevolution! www.theflipflopi.com