Author: Kathleen Retourne
As Zambia marches towards the tail-end of rainy season, the weather still holds the ability to surprise. A deluge of rain can quickly transform dirt roads into rivers of mud. But, it is not just water that flows. The rain pushes great swathes of litter into the streets, national parks and rivers.
After the rain, villagers, using stick brooms, sweep aside the collected dirt and litter. But, there is nowhere for it to go. In Africa, a lack of education and insufficient waste collection has resulted in the double-edged sword of poor health for local communities and huge damage to the environment.
Evidence of pollution is everywhere. Plastic hangs from trees like terrible fake flowers. Meanwhile, rivers deposit the litter into the ocean killing fish, birds and marine life.
Of the 78 million tonnes of plastic produced annually, 32% flows into our oceans. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute, a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation revealed. By 2030, this is expected to increase to two per minute. Fast-forward to 2050, and this could mean there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.
The impact can no longer be ignored. Social media is awash with devastating images of wildlife killed by plastic pollution. Experts warn humans are exposed to dangerous amounts of toxins and global news headlines scream for governments to respond.
When plastic hit mainstream consumers in the 1970s it was lauded as the savior of packaging. Here was a durable, low cost, easy to produce material which boasted a multitude of usages. But, by solving one problem, we inadvertently created an even bigger issue.
For, the very thing that makes plastic revered, is what makes it dangerous – it does not decompose easily. As the widespread use of plastic has only been around since the 1970s, estimates vary as to how long it would take for a plastic bag to decompose as environmental factors also need to be considered. As such, the time ranges from 10 – 1,000 years for a plastic bag, 400 years for plastic bottles and 200 years for a straw.
The problem is compounded by the fact it cannot be burned as the fumes are toxic and, while there has been an uptick in recycling, many rural areas in developing countries do not have access to this. Furthermore, big brands refuse to use 100% recycled material as they believe it will deter consumers.
According to US scientists, the total amount of plastic ever made is 8.3 billion tonnes. This is the equivalent of 1.5 billion African elephants, or more than half a million blue whales.
In a bid to raise awareness, Earth Day – which takes place on April 22nd – will focus on ending plastic pollution.
According to a World Bank Urban Development Series report, Africa currently produces around 70 million tonnes of waste every year. As the human population increases and rural areas become increasingly urbanized, it is forecast that waste production in this continent will exceed 160 million tonnes by the year 2025.
Currently, just 10% of the waste generated every day in this continent is collected. The rest ends up in dump sites and the surrounding environment.
Strength through community
Still, there is hope. In Livingstone, Zambia, African Impact are working alongside communities and other organisations to reduce plastic pollution.
As part of Earth Day, African Impact will take part in a march organised by Conservation and Tourism Society (CATS) to walk alongside school-aged children through the town of Livingstone to highlight the issues.
Our partnership with CATS also works alongside Livingstone stakeholders to implement recycling and modern waste management practices in their respective operations.
Educating the younger generation is vital if we wish to change mindsets – but for them to connect to their inheritance we must first make them fall in love with it.
At African Impact we run regular conservation education courses throughout all our projects in Africa. Additionally, in Livingstone, we turn the problem of plastic durability on its head to tackle two key issues: Excess waste and a lack of affordable building material.
This is done by creating an “eco-brick” – essentially this is getting a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle and filling it with soft plastics – cellophane, chip packets, sweet wrappers, plastic bags and anything else that can’t easily be recycled. Once it’s stuffed and packed into the bottle it is screwed closed and used as a building brick.
To make this possible, volunteers participate in litter picking, creating the bricks with the litter they find.
We have also established a swap shop with school students. Through this program, students exchange eco-bricks they have made for rewards ranging from pencils (one brick) to items of clothing (50 bricks).
It has seen us receive over 3,000 eco-bricks and taken thousands of pieces of litter off the streets of Zambia – 10 eco-bricks equal 1kg of waste.
“With 45,000 bags leaving certain supermarkets every day, every eco-brick that our children and community can make will have an effect on our Livingstone environment,” CATS founder Alec Cole said.
Since inception we have created several chicken coops and piggeries to help communities protect livestock. Last year we constructed a kitchen counter, tables and benches to help with the feeding of children at a local school – this used close to 2,000 bricks. So far this year we have built a wall – using 1,000 bricks – to fence-off a hazardous storage area at the same school. We have more exciting projects in the pipeline.
The war on waste is a battle worth fighting. It may not be the glamorous side of conservation, but it is one that, if everyone works together, can make the difference for future generations to come.