How street urchins are leading charge against ocean plastic pollution

Plastic waste floats in the Indian Ocean along Lamu Island seafront in Lamu County. Locals have been accused of disposing of plastic waste into the ocean and other water bodies causing massive pollution in the process. [File, Standard]

As Salim Mwadime walks the Pirates Beach Mombasa, a series of small waves crash against the beach.

His cold and cracked hands clutch onto a sack in one hand and a long wooden stick in the other as he picks at the trash scavenging for morsels of food all the while ignoring the shrieking screams of children playing in the salty water.

Spurred on by nothing but hunger and a need for money, he goes picking plastic bottles, straws, soda cans, glass, and takeaway containers that he tucks into his frayed sack.

Unknown to him, his actions, of ultimately selling the ‘plastic gold’ to brokers who later offload the same to recycling companies, put him in the centre of a circular waste recycling economy whose ripple effect has been the removal of litter from the marine environment.

Most progressive laws

In 2020, Kenya enacted one of the most progressive laws to tackle plastic pollution, especially on beaches, oceans, and other protected areas by banning the use of single-use plastics. This was preceded by an earlier decision to ban the use of plastic bags in 2017, a move that brought the country international acclaim.

However, years on, gaps in the enforcement of the ban have seen the country move steps back in the fight against ocean pollution as evidenced by the mounds of plastic waste slowly creeping back on beaches and the coastal shoreline.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program’s (UNEP) latest report on the fight against plastic pollution, like many countries, Kenya continues to struggle with plastic waste, which dots the Indian Ocean coast and often abounds in its lakes.

 Two million residents

In Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city with approximately two million residents, 3.7kg of plastic per capita leach into bodies of water annually. For a city that mainly relies on tourism, the continued choking of its coastline by plastics not only affects marine life but impacts the sources of livelihood for many.

Plastic bottles, forms of takeaway items, miniature toiletries and sachets, plastic bags, plastic drinks stirrers, plastic cotton swabs, sweet wrappers, straws, soda cans, and forks remain the most common form of litter on the beach. 

The problem is however not unique to Mombasa as the same fate is shared in the neighbouring Lamu, Malindi, Kilifi and Kwale beaches.

The Kenya Coast Guard Service (KCGS) has raised a red flag over the continued dumping of plastic waste on Kenyan beaches. It is now calling for the implementation of a total ban on single-use plastics, both on the mainland and along the coastline, in a bid to limit the number of plastics that reach Kenya’s waterways. 

Members of the Rotaract Club of Watamu together with Watamu Marine Association in a massive beach clean-up exercise along the Garoda Resort beach front in July 2017. The exercise highlighted the need to have plastic-free beaches. [File, Standard]

Help, however, is coming from one of the unlikeliest quarters, street children. Ignored and abused, street children are unwittingly ridding beaches of single-use plastics as they collect them daily to sell to traders and recyclers. 

The knock-on effect, especially for public beaches, has been that they are getting cleaner thanks to their plastic collection efforts and consequently less plastic is making it to the sea.

“Once we collect the waste, we go sell it to traders who frequent the Mwakirunge dumpsite in search of recyclable plastics. We then use our proceeds to buy food and for some feed their glue-sniffing addiction,” confessed Mwadime.

For a kg of plastic waste, he says, he gets Sh10.

According to the 2021-30 National Marine Litter Management Action Plan prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Nema, sources of the marine litter include illegal dumping sites close to beaches such as the decommissioned Kibarani dumpsite and littering along streets and beaches.

Marine environment

The release of litter into the marine environment occurs through a variety of pathways including rivers, storm drains, sewage, or winds; deliberate beach littering and directly left ashore via shipping and fishing activities.

The damage plastic items cause to marine life when they come into contact with or ingest them, include suffocation, entanglement, laceration and internal injuries. And according to a 2018 census report by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, the number of street persons is comprised of 7,529 in Mombasa, 477 in Taita Taveta, 393 in Kilifi, 217 in Tana River, 206 in Lamu and 175 in Kwale.

Countrywide, it showed, street families comprised 46,639 people across the 47 counties.

Betterman Musidi Musasya, the founder of Clean-up Kenya, links the street persons to the informal waste-picking economy which he says plays a significant role in dealing with the plastics waste menace.

Article published

In his 'Garbage collectors who are treated like trash' article published in November 2022, Musidi said street families and other vulnerable groups such as slum dwellers, many of them women and children, collect garbage from the streets, bins, markets, and from waste transfer stations as well as dumpsites.

He, however, regrets that because of the informal nature of their work, their exact number is unknown.

“Another under-appreciated form of waste picking labour is provided by street families…Some of these homeless people pick plastic bottles and metal scraps for sale to brokers, who then sell them to recyclers at a profit,” he says.

Musidi is now calling on the government to incorporate these waste pickers in waste management plans, saying the existing laws do not acknowledge the role of waste pickers despite the fact that a large percentage of the close to 10 million tonnes of waste produced annually is processed by them.

Coastal County Beach Management Units Association Mombasa representative Mercy Mganga (second right) during a beach clean-up exercise in Mombasa. [File, Standard]

Coastal County Beach Management Units Association Mombasa representative Mercy Mganga attributes the plastics challenge to gaps in the enforcement of the plastics ban.

She attributes the same to large-scale manufacturers that are still producing plastic products in large volumes.  

“There are also gaps in enforcement by authorities such as Nema which is not proactive: We have to go report about the pollution but even if you do they are reluctant,” says Mganga.

The lack of implementation of universal International laws across borders, she adds, is a huge setback in the fight against plastics as products wrapped in plastic material and from neighbouring countries make it to the coastal markets.

Fight against plastics

Mganga, however, admits that whereas street children unknowingly play a vital role in the fight against plastics, they are not a reliable solution.

The legally registered BMUs are spread across the six coastal counties: Mombasa (16), Kwale (26), Kilifi (18), Lamu (46), Taita Taveta (2), and Tana River (3).

Nema Mombasa County director Samuel Lopokoiyit says the agency has been proactive in enforcing the ban on plastics. Whereas he agrees that street families play a role in waste management, he avers their contribution is yet to be quantified. 

Lopokoiyit is now banking on the full implementation of Nema’s 2021-30 National Marine Litter Management Action Plan to reduce litter at the source, enhancing awareness on the removal of litter from the marine environment.

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