In Gunjur, a coastal town in the Gambia, and one of the most westerly points of Africa, a woman is fashioning a tile out of sand and plastic waste otherwise destined for the ocean. She is working alongside a number of local people in a specially constructed workshop where the plastic can be melted and re-manufactured in a safe way. This initiative is a pilot project that has been facilitated by the charity WasteAid, in partnership with local organisation the Women’s Initiative the Gambia and funded by UK Aid. Its success is paving the way for other projects to follow.
In 2017 the airing of Blue Planet 2 saw a surge in activities to avoid or eliminate plastics in the UK. Desperately distressing images of birds and animals suffocating on plastic bags or starving after eating plastic fragments motivated people to get out and rid their coasts of plastic pollution. Beach cleans, previously the preserve of dedicated bands of stalwarts, became the go-to activity on a Saturday morning, with organised clean-ups starting to attract upwards of 200 people in some locations. Beach cleaning ticks a lot of boxes in terms of mental health and other benefits: being part of a community activity; being outside; getting up close with nature; plus, the feelgood factor of doing something positive.
We are lucky in the UK to be able to take part in beach cleans, largely because of something that we take for granted in our everyday lives: that someone else will take away the rubbish we have collected and then dispose of it somewhere where we can no longer see it.
Imagine that you have spent your Saturday morning collecting plastics and other ocean-spewed rubbish washed up onto your local coastline. But instead of it being collected in an orderly way by a waste contractor, the rubbish stays on the beach because there is no-one to take it away – and nowhere to take it to. Eventually the tide will rip open the black bags and redistribute the rubbish that you have painstakingly collected back into the water. But it doesn’t stop there, because everyone else who lives in your town has nowhere to put their waste either. The rubbish is starting to pile up. It is getting into waterways and being washed out into the sea in huge floods.
The Gambia is one of many areas facing a massive waste management problem. The woman creating the tile in Gunjur is among the 3 billion people world-wide with little if any access to a safe waste management system. Waste, literally, has nowhere to go, apart from the rivers and the sea. In a bid to tackle the waste mountain some is burnt, but this uncontrolled burning leads to huge health problems. According to the UN, in locations where waste is not collected there is six times the level of respiratory illness and doubled levels of diarrhoea. The longer-term impact on child development is also shocking – an eight-year-old living in an area with no safe waste management will be on average 4.5cms shorter than a peer living in a location where there is. According to a new report, backed by Sir David Attenborough one person dies every 30 seconds in developing countries from diseases caused by plastic pollution and rubbish. In the UK we contribute to that problem because so much of our plastic waste is exported.
In common with the beach cleaning activities of the UK, the project in Gunjur is diverting a source of plastic pollution from the ocean. But in terms of tackling a public health crisis, it is doing so much more.
Set up in 2015 WasteAid is a relatively new charity. Its goal is simple: a world with equal access to waste services for all. Addressing poor waste management is not just an environmental priority for the charity – it is a public health one too. WasteAid wants to help more people set up their own community waste management organisations – similar to the project in the Gambia – where there are currently few formalised waste management systems in place.
The Gambia has been trying to address the problem of plastic waste for years. In 2015 the import and use of plastic bags was banned, but this is just one step towards tackling this problem. Up to 70% of plastic in our oceans comes from the land – and most of that will come from locations with little or no waste management, mainly countries in Africa and Asia. But with waste being transported around the world for disposal the problem is a global one – and one that is linked to the way that we produce and consume goods as well as how we manage their disposal. There is no waste without manufacture and consumption. The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent. Put simply, the countries with the biggest waste problem are also the ones whose consumption contributes least to the creation of waste on a global scale.
The United States exports about as much plastic waste to countries with poor waste management as it recycles domestically, according to research published by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. The UK too is exporting around half of its packaging waste for recycling – a six-fold increase since 2012, largely because of the “success” in increasing the total captured for recycling. Yet, as a National Audit Office report released in July last year revealed, the destination of this “recycled” packaging waste is not clear. There is a huge lack of transparency in some parts of the waste management sector, which means, frankly, that we have no idea what happens to much of the rubbish that we separate for recycling. Some of it may be successfully turned into new materials. The rest? Well that could be adding to the already burgeoning waste problems of countries like The Gambia. On top of their own waste many countries of the world with minimal waste management systems have to deal with the import of waste from far wealthier countries. These countries really should be sorting out their own rubbish – and if they cannot, they need to drastically cut the amount of waste produced until they can.
So yes, let us carry on cleaning up beaches. But we can do much more by simply cutting the amount of unnecessary stuff that we buy – particularly those things we know are not going to last long or that come with excessive and instantly discarded packaging. We can also support the work of WasteAid to help tackle the lack of waste management provision in other countries.
Following on from the Gunjur project WasteAid has launched a new programme called Widening the Net which will train people living in poverty in the city of Douala, Cameroon, to capture and recycle ocean-bound plastic. You can support this work and help tackle the problem of ocean plastic pollution by donating to WasteAid today. And until the end of July 2019 the value of your donation will be doubled as all donations are being match funded by UK Aid. Donate £10 before the end of July and you will provide training for a family to manage their waste in a safe and sustainable way. Donating £90 will train someone to capture and recycle 2.5 tonnes of ocean-bound plastic per year.
So here is an idea: add up all the money that you are going to save by not buying unnecessary stuff, donate it to WasteAid before the end July and your impact will be more than doubled by not having added to the waste problem in the first place.
For more information about WasteAid and details of how to donate visit wasteaid.org.
On June 27th Planet Aware will be walking and beach cleaning ten miles of the south coast of the Isle of Wight to raise money for the work of WasteAid. You can donate to via their JustGiving page.
Biffa Isle of Wight is collecting and disposing of rubbish collected.