Plastics threat as world marks environment day

Bernard Gitau @benagitau

If you Google ‘plastic’, the most prominent photos may be of an ocean flowing with more plastic than fish.

And if you are near a computer or holding a phone reading this article, your first reflex action might be to counter-check this!

Whether the photo appeared or not, the experience of major towns in Kenya, led by Nairobi and Mombasa choking with garbage, is real.

At the Kenyan coastline, beaches are turning into a sea of plastic, posing a serious threat to tourism.

As a result, environmentalists in Lamu have been constructing a seven-foot plastic dhow, named ‘flip-flopi project’ with the aim of sailing to Cape Town in South Africa to raise awareness on the effects of plastic pollution.

A United Nations (UN) report indicates that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and majority are dumped on the flat surface. 

“Around 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016, translating to a million bottles per minute or 20,000 per second,” the report states.

The World Environment Day, being marked today, is themed ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. Locally PET plastic bottles are the kings of trash, accumulating at a mind-boggling rate.

Last year, 40 per cent of cattle that died during drought had ingested significant amounts of plastic bags.

“Bad attitude on waste management is a challenge that needs to be addressed. It should be common sense for anyone who uses a disposable plastic bottle to re-use or dispose of it in a dustbin,” National Environment Management Authority (Nema) director general Geoffrey Wahungu said.

The behaviour was captured during the recent Mater Heart Run in Nairobi where hundreds of plastic bottles were dumped along the roads or in the drainage tunnels.

  Social media wags quipped that they were “clogging the drainage during a run to unclog the artery” and condemned the act.

The United Nations (UN) estimating that eight million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans annually.

But Wahungu expressed optimism that with the success of plastic carrier bags ban implementation, the next phase of pet plastic bottles management would equally be fruitful.

“We have succeeded almost 90 per cent in the implementation of single use plastic bags ban effected last year in August. We are working on regulations for pet plastic bottles,” he said.

Plastics produced across the globe are believed to be enough to cover every foot of coastline around the world and if not addressed, UN says there will be more plastic in oceans than fish by 2050. It is a problem the flip-flop boat aims at creating awareness of.

“With the plastic boat sailing 5,000km from Kenya to Cape Town, we will be sharing solutions and changing mindsets along the way,” said Skanda Ali, one of the environmentalists involved in the boat project.

The project was born through a visit to Zanzibar when the two saw the alarming amount of plastic – flip-flops in particular – lining the beach.

“There is clearly a huge lag between the scale of the ocean plastic problem and the level of awareness about it among everyday consumers in Africa and the developing world countries that surround the Indian Ocean,” he said.

Him and team collected 33 tonnes of plastic in Lamu beaches, mainly from Thailand, Malaysia, India, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia – and of course Kenya and its neighbours. 

“Similarly, much of the plastic in the oceans around the United States and European countries will also have originated elsewhere,” he said.  “The plastic crises happened so quickly from the time it was invented to today where we are literally swimming in it,” he added.

“We need to do more than find innovative ways to clean our mess or stop consuming single use plastic; we need to learn very quickly how not to make the same mistake again whether it’s plastic, deforestation, climate change – because there is no Planet B,” he said.

In Watamu, residents are constructing houses by stacking glass and plastic bottles.

Justin Kitsao, chairman of the Watamu Marine Association, an environmental non-governmental group, said constructing houses using plastic and glass bottles reduces the need for other building materials, particularly sand and concrete blocks.

And James Wakibia, an environmental activist who has been vocal on plastic bags ban, is calling for quick solutions.

He has petitioned the government to ban plastic straws, cups and cutlery and support the use of paper, bamboo or steel straws. Wakibia commends corporate and hospitality industries addressing plastic bottles.

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