Story | 05 Jun, 2018

Closing the Western Indian Ocean’s plastic tap

By Luther Bois Anukur, Regional Director, IUCN Eastern and Southern Africa

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Photo: IUCN/ Peter Manyara

That the issue of marine plastic pollution has reached the apex of global environmental decision-making is not in dispute. From the Group of Seven (G7) to the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), political leaders are pursuing varied approaches and mechanisms to arrest the growing problem. Existing mechanisms have proved ineffective in addressing the challenge, with current releases estimated at 8.3 million tons per year and growing. Global plastic production is projected to rise drastically, from the current 335 million tons per year to 1000 million tons annually. It is against this backdrop that member states at the third meeting of the UNEA decided to establish and convene meetings of an Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group (AHOEEG) to further examine the barriers to, and options for, combating marine plastic litter and microplastics from all sources, especially land-based sources. The first meeting of the AHOEEG was held from 29 to 31 May 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya, bringing together more than 270 delegates representing governments, non-governmental organizations, academia and intergovernmental organizations.

To focus on the Western Indian Ocean (WIO region), as a portion of the global ocean system, when we visualize the more than 10,000km stretch of coastline, from Kenya to South Africa, many might envision its clean sandy beaches and coral rich marine waters, given Africa’s low plastic footprint—average 2005 plastic consumption per capita for plastics was estimated at 16 kilos per year in Africa, compared to more than 100 kilos per year in the US and Europe.

Unfortunately, these touristic heavens are also reservoirs of tons of plastic litter. Recent cleanup data shows that the litter mainly constitutes of plastic bags, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, synthetics, straws, toothbrush and cigarette butts that have been disposed carelessly or mishandled by the region’s more than 200 million inhabitants. Such litter is not only an eyesore, but has grave impact on marine biodiversity, wildlife, human health and national economies. A recent World Economic Forum report estimates the cost of such plastic after-use externalities, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production at $40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool. In the marine environment, plastic entangles marine mammals resulting in physical injury and impairment. Worse, many sea birds and turtles ingest plastic fragments which gives them a false sense of satiation, thereby leading to death through starvation.

On the trail of marine plastics in Eastern and Southern Africa

A 2009 Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis concluded that marine litter represents a serious problem in most coastal urban centres within the Western Indian Ocean. The analysis estimated the loads of suspended solids from municipal wastewater in coastal areas of the WIO region at more than 97,000 tons per year, with major land-based sources being, solid waste dumpsites, surface water runoff, and public litter on beaches and other coastal areas. Since the invention of plastic in the mid-20th century, more than nine 8.3 billion metric tons have been produced worldwide, with about 8 million metric tons of that entering the oceans each year. Globally, the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute in a business-as-usual scenario, a statistic projected to double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050. Even more plastic waste is being discharged onto land - estimated at 4 to 23 times more than releases to oceans.

Plastic remains a problem pollutant in the WIO region, where less than five per cent of it is recycled. Countries derive more than US $22 billion of marine goods and services from the Indian Ocean annually through fisheries, trade, and tourism, which is threated by plastic pollution. There is little data in the region, in terms of research and knowledge on quantities, types, trends, sources and sinks of marine litter, with the exception of South Africa. No country has undertaken assessments on the economic impact of marine litter, while existing policies and laws need to address it in a more comprehensive manner taking the whole life cycle of plastic products. Recycling remains low, with South Africa, Seychelles and Mauritius having the most successful formal programmes for recycling waste plastics. Data and information is critical if countries are to enact appropriate on-the-ground policies and practices that can facilitate positive change. While the developed world has significantly reduced their plastic footprint in the oceans through advances in waste management, treatment and recycling, many African countries struggle, with plastic releases into coastal and marine waters in the region dominated by inappropriate disposal of solid wastes.

From recognition to action

 In the absence of legally binding agreements at the international level for which the reduction of marine plastic litter and microplastics is a primary objective, several regions have adopted legally binding instruments and protocols related to land-based sources and activities. The regional instruments are intended to address some of the legal, financial, technological and informational barriers that were discussed in the recent AHOEEG meeting.

The Western Indian Ocean region recognizes the threat posed by plastic litter in its coasts and oceans and has catalyzed some action. For example, South Africa, Kenya, and Rwanda have instituted measures to deter the use of short life plastic bags, earning them recognition as amongst champion countries in addressing the scourge in a recent UNEP report. While these countries pursued a largely command and control regulatory approach to deter single-use plastic, other regulatory measures exist, such as voluntary agreements, levies, charges and taxes, though their success depends on country contexts. Such measures can be applied to alter the price of plastic bags to integrate the full costs of externalities and thereby catalyze a shift towards an enhanced circular economy.

Kenya deferred a ban on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in order to explore with industry and other stakeholders, the concept of extended producer responsibility through container deposit schemes as applied in Asia, Europe, US, Canada and Australia. South Australia implemented a container deposit legislation in 1975 that led to a return rate of more than 80% of plastic containers, and which has since been legislated. South Africa has conducted a “plastic material flows and end of life” study to holistically assess the status of production and management of plastics to guide improvements in recycling.

However, the challenge of the plastic pollution requires holistic approaches, multi-stakeholder involvement as well as regional cooperation. The case of Kenya’s plastic ban is in this regard enlightening on the critical socio-economic dimension of the plastic issue. In light of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) which brings with it opportunities for economic transformation across the continent, the CFTA creates new opportunities beyond national borders. The regional economic dimension is as well highly important in terms of coordination of efforts. The CFTA will indeed enable companies and manufacturers to expand their operations into neighbouring countries to gain from favourable opportunities and link to new distribution networks. Without a regional approach, manufacturers facing stringent plastic bans may be tempted to explore options to shift base to countries where such regulatory restrictions are not yet developed. This will undermine progress in countries trying to tackle the plastics pollution problem facing illegal entry of banned plastic commodities.

Bilateral partnerships and global action

Analysis by the IUCN-International Union for Conservation of Nature finds that action to address the global problem needs to be complemented by regional and local solutions tailored to different sources and pollution pathways. It is for this reason that IUCN is implementing a new global initiative “Marine plastics and Coastal Communities (MARPLASTICCS)” funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). Based on a comprehensive and lifecycle approach of the plastic pollution, this initiative aims at supporting the development of innovative solutions to the marine plastic pollution problem, at the country and regional levels in Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa regions. As pilot countries MARPLASTICCs is currently implementing activities in five countries including, Thailand, Viet Nam, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa to tackle ocean plastic pollution through a focus on reducing plastic waste, development of innovative solutions, influence on regulatory frameworks, and pilot projects. Project initiation consultations have been held with relevant departments, such as Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife (IUCN State Member), Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and National Environment Management Authority in Kenya, Ministry of Sea, Inland Waters and Fisheries in Mozambique, and Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa (IUCN State Member) to ensure country buy in and ownership of the MARPLASTICCS initiative.

In order to address the multiple dimensions of interests and views, such as observed in the deferred ban on PET bottles by Kenya, the project will support dialogue processes between regulators, business and civil society actors to ensure that right measures are taken. This work contributes to achieving SDG targets, particularly target 14.1, which calls for prevention and reduction of marine pollution of all kinds, including marine debris but as well as to support the UNEA resolutions and the work of the new Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics.

The regional mechanism for addressing recommendations on land-based sources of marine litter is the Nairobi Convention, geared towards the protection, management and development of coastal and marine environment in the Eastern African Region. The convention considered and adopted a protocol on land-based sources and activities in 2010, which needs to be implemented through regional and national plans of action. MARPLASTICCS will support such regional frameworks and processes and further optimize on the memorandum of understanding between IUCN and the Indian Ocean Commission to address plastics in the Indian Ocean region and promote the domestication of existing international instruments such as MARPOL Annex V which prohibits disposal of all plastics at sea.

Closing the plastic tap

Solutions need to shift beyond the traditional focus on waste management to product eco-design and lifecycle thinking. The conventional plastic use and disposal model is unsustainable and presents challenges that are only likely to escalate in magnitude, considering a projected three-fold increase in annual production by 2050. Research and technological advances present an alternative model—the circular economy—which is restorative by design and not as reliant on virgin fossil-fuel derived feedstocks in plastic manufacture. This model promotes sustained maintenance that ensures plastic materials are of high value, free of harmful toxins, have extended use and reuse cycles, and have value creation potential for businesses, society, and the environment. IUCN is working with businesses to help them improve their understanding of their plastics footprint. This requires metrics and indicators which currently do not exist. To address this gap, IUCN is working with footprint and life cycle analysis experts and businesses to develop a plastics footprint calculator to help businesses close the plastic loop by consolidating data, quantifying scales of plastic flows, and developing solutions to guide decision-making.

To this end, IUCN has initiated multi-stakeholder dialogue processes to explore how to shift towards national circular economic model taking into account the entire lifecycle of plastics in order to ‘close the plastic tap’. With the MARPLASTICCs initiative, cooperation with the private sector is multifold, supporting platforms for fostering leadership and innovative solutions and actions, as well a better understanding and assessment of the plastic footprint and stimulation of corporate stewardship.

Plastic pollution is everybody’s business!

It is an observed fact that plastic packaging is exclusively single-use in business-to-consumer applications. While governments, businesses, civil society and others have a role to play, action at the consumer level presents an important dimension towards addressing the global problem through reduced use of unnecessary single-use plastics and a stoppage to littering. Cleanup efforts by community volunteers help create awareness on the problem while at the same time providing critical data on trends and traceability of recovered items back to source.  Even though improved traceability may help to ensure that the private sector takes charge in addressing their contribution to the problem, such as through recovery and recycling initiatives, it is paramount that extended producer responsibility schemes should also be designed and implemented to stimulate design change within plastics and consumer goods industry.

There is need to enhance the economic attractiveness of keeping materials in the system as envisaged in a circular economy. While this may be reachable for a larger section of the private sector, the informal waste sector may struggle on this aspect, necessitating the need for countries and businesses to invest in appropriate infrastructure for after-use collection and reprocessing of plastic waste. The increased value of after-use plastics will motivate the informal waste sector to be more vigilant in ensuring that such waste does not escape the collection systems.

In Mozambique, the Cooperativa de Educação Ambiental Ntumbuluku (CEAN), a local NGO is involved in educational initiatives with primary school children across the country. To get ordinary citizens to act, the organization implements a variety of informal campaigns and educational sessions to promote behaviour change around plastics. The organization targets young, school going children who are more receptive to participating in plastic debris cleanup events within and around their school premises and where they learn about its origins and impacts. Dr. Carlos Sera who has been involved in several clean up campaigns in Mozambique, through the Let's Do It! campaigns, observes that schoolchildren enjoy such extra-curricular experiences and are enthusiastic to make a difference. In addition, parents have provided feedback that their children are spearheading behavioural change at the household level by pointing out improver disposal of plastic litter and reuse. It makes scientific sense to target school going children, since children interpret scientific information relatively independent of prevailing ideological constraints.

MARPLASTICCS will scope and review local levels of awareness and capacity on addressing plastic pollution in target countries. Beginning with such existing interest and capacity, the project will focus on national government agencies, municipalities and local governments responsible for waste management as well as local NGOs, research institutions and private sector actors. Actions will entail support to build and expand apolitical multi-stakeholder networks that focus on awareness raising, legislative change, facilitating national and sub-national action, and establishment of citizen-science initiatives to map and register sources of plastic pollution to facilitate public engagement, awareness raising and knowledge generation.


For more information, please contact:

Peter Manyara
Regional Project Coordinator, Marine Plastics and Coastal Communities (MARPLASTICCS) Initiative
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) - Eastern & Southern Africa Regional Office (ESARO)

Carole Martinez
MARPLASTICCs Initiative Senior Coordinator
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)