Plastics Recovery in Open Waters

Could a rethink of basic assumptions turn challenges into opportunities or sources of competitive advantage?

One striking feature of the global drive toward sustainable development is the extent to which the agenda has evolved since the 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Today, eco-efficiency is central. Worldwide, governments and the private sector are striving to merge environmental and economic performance to create more value for business itself, and crucially for communities – with less negative externalities.

Although much has been written about urban visioning processes and their consequences in countries of the Global North, seemingly many of these processes are not clearly understood in the Global South. Against a backdrop of chaos and decay, many African governments with visions of progress are ‘rebranding’ the image of their cities. Alongside the clearing of beggars and street hawkers from city centres, regeneration activities include large-scale projects aimed at bringing African cities to international standards. The unfolding reality is that as 21st-century metropolises continue to experience significant population growth, urban development issues have become more complex and urgent.

A Polluted Lagoon in Accra, Ghana Photo
A Polluted Lagoon in Accra, Ghana

An estimated 40% of the population of West Africa live in coastal cities. The region’s highly productive ecosystems: mangrove swamps, estuaries, deltas and coral reefs are situated mostly in coastal zones, which form the basis for important economic activities such as fisheries and tourism. Could a rethink of basic assumptions turn challenges into opportunities or sources of competitive advantage?

Many African cities are experiencing a huge increase in their waste stream, with systems stretched beyond carrying capacities. The influx of plastics, notably thin-film carrier bags preclude germination of plants and rainwater into the soil. Wind-blown thin-film carrier bags are visible everywhere. They block drains and exacerbate flooding. Livestock that consume garbage-filled plastic bags which remain undigested are also at risk. Waste management is proving a challenge with dire consequences for public health, environmental quality, fisheries, agriculture, and tourism. Regrettably, the infrastructures, skills, and expertise to tackle the huge volumes and complexities associated with an unprecedented waste stream are inadequate.

Plastic Recovery Photo
Plastic Recovery

Globalisation is the worldwide movement toward economic, financial, trade, and communications integration. It entails the opening of local and nationalistic perspectives to a broader outlook of an increasingly interdependent world with the free transfer of capital, goods, and services across national borders. In its wake globalisation has brought new challenges such as goods, which eventually become scrap and societies must contend with.

To stem the tide, in 2018 the European Union, EU Parliament set in motion plans to ban plastic straws, cutleries, and plates. Some commentators said the EU move is part of a wider strategy to spur investments in new types of packaging. Whatever the motive, the reality is when a plastic bag enters the sea, besides the likely suffocation or entanglement of marine life, ingestion is the main issue. For instance, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish or squid. Reports also show that more than 630 marine debris footballs (and pieces) were collected from 23 countries and islands in Europe from 104 different beaches by 62 members of the public in four months.

The African Union, AU in 2013 published “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want”. The (2014-2023) Implementation Plan outlined specific goals to be achieved in the first ten years, including reference to the expected transformation of waste management.

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The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS in 2012 focused on e-waste, with the development of a draft regional strategy on chemicals and hazardous waste management, and the development of a draft strategy on plastic waste management respectively.

Recycling proponents assert market demand, political resolve or both would influence the development of sustainable markets and facilities for reprocessing recyclables. However, competition in today’s business environment requires building great relationships and the sharing of accurate real-time information that would enable facilitators to work better, faster and cheaper. On the basis that specialist equipment: bins, bags, balers, compactors, skips, shredders and facilities are needed, suppliers must have surety of payment. This is a sensitive issue because organisations are risk-averse entering new markets, particularly when they have no previous representation in a given country.

A Scenario Planning Exercise, SPE is an interactive process where experts and facilitators have the chance to provide views on future outcomes based on a set of strategic drivers. SPE is ideal for understanding and developing a response to achieving set goals. SPE should involve all the key stakeholders, government, local authorities, industry captains, residents, producers, and re-processors to examine the key strategic drivers, which will impact on achieving goals. The essence of the exercise is to ascertain the rationale for intervention; why do it, who will do it, where, when, and how? These are important preconditions for taking stock of what is available as well as evaluating gaps in resources, reprocessing capability, volume and type of material. SPE could be achieved in five days, with an additional week or more to write the findings.

Based in the Netherlands with ongoing operations in the far East, a foundation is actively engaged in the recovery of plastic pollution in open waters. Activities include the retrieval of debris in rivers and river mouths, the sustainable re-use of plastics, organising cleanups, awareness-raising, and education. The foundation has successfully operated Litter Traps that capture plastics from a distributary of the Rhine River (figure 1).

The traps capture plastics by using the river’s current and retain the plastics even when the current changes. Captured plastics are then recycled and used to construct islands where vegetation grow, provide habitation and food for birds, insects, and micro-organisms. In Indonesia, litter traps have been constructed using local materials.

*Ita is an Environment Consultant and Independent Journalist

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