“Waste is a human problem. There is no waste in nature.”
With these words Dr Sylvia Earle gave the keynote address at the inaugural African Marine Waste Conference last week in Port Elizabeth. The conference brought together about 200 diverse delegates from around the world, including scientists, educators, government and policy makers, and members of industry.
The world-renowned oceanographer and explorer emphasised we are now living in an age where we can build on the knowledge of past generations, and that we have the ability to gather new information and pass it on to future generations. “Hundreds of thousands of species will either live or die depending on what we do, or fail to do,” she said.
Africa is now the second most polluted continent. The African Marine Waste Conference sought to unify stakeholders and provide a platform to collectively innovate solutions to Africa’s marine waste issues. Global and local experts came together to share resources and knowledge to empower Africa in this endeavour.
Africa is relatively data poor regarding waste management. This obstacle must be overcome as, in order to effectively implement waste management programs, baseline data on the waste situation in Africa must be obtained. Dr Jenna Jambeck presented her much cited paper, “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean”, followed by a Mozambican case study by Flora and Fauna International. Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty presented their wealth of experience in conducting beach clean ups and concurrent data collection along the coast of Australia and argued a similar project could be undertaken along the African coastline with reasonable effort. Ocean Conservancy presented their valuable experience over 30 years of conducting ocean clean ups. Parallel sessions showcased some of the latest research in microplastics, ocean warming and acidification, and the effects of plastics on seabirds.
Many organisations acknowledge that collaboration is key in the war against marine pollution. Representatives from GRID-Arendal and Prince of Wales Foundation spoke on how to create conditions for this collaboration. Similarly, increased education and awareness programs are vital to local and global success. Peter Murphy from NOAA gave a keynote entitled “Education – The Future of Waste Management” and several parallel sessions covered topics including the role of citizen science, capacity building and science communication by representatives from countries as varied as Tunisia, Mauritius, Estonia and America. Members of government and policy makers are also important stakeholders, instrumental in combating marine debris. Representatives of the Abidjan and Nairobi Conventions, Abou Bamba and Julius Francis respectively, were present to inform delegates of the legal frameworks the Abidjan Convention has implemented and the cooperation, coordination and collaborative actions the Nairobi Convention facilitates.
The third day of the conference was devoted to industry, including tourism. Plastics SA, Packaging SA and Use-It all gave presentations showcasing developments to lessen the environmental impact of packaging and plastics. Heated debates were stirred up in panel discussions with PETCO and POLYCO and at parallel sessions with Rethink the Bag among others. It has become increasingly clear that waste is an economic opportunity. Africa should implement principles of the circular economy as a solution to Africa’s waste problem while at the same time enabling job creation through the monetisation of waste.
Young entrepreneur and co-founder of Destination Green recycling program, Zwelibanzi Mnguni, received a standing ovation for his company’s work in local communities. Parallel sessions featured new innovations in plastics and packaging design, engineering and recycling plants, and topics including corporate responsibility and the role of the consumer.
The final day of the conference was devoted to workshops, at which delegates contributed to two of the main products of the conference being 1) Strategy on Marine Waste: Guide to Action for Africa; and 2) The African Marine Waste Network. This valuable feedback will be written into the Strategy document and used to further guide and design the Network.
The conference focussed on innovating solutions to Africa’s and the world’s waste crisis, and many presenters from around the world showcased inspiring evidence of growing successes in this endeavour. Deputy Minister of environment to Indonesia, Dr. Safri Burhanuddin, presented Indonesia’s new plan of action on marine plastic debris. Currently, Indonesia is the second highest contributor to marine waste in the world, but their new action plan aims to turn this around by achieving a 70% reducing in marine debris by 2025. This was warmly welcomed and applauded by delegates and provides a motivating example to other nations. Another example is the enthusiastic Sam Ngaruiya, director of Regeneration Environmental Services Ltd in Kenya. Ngaruiya’s recycling project creates building materials using recycled plastics. He is also part of next year’s “FlipiFlop Expedition” to raise awareness – an epic sail from Lamu, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa in a 60ft traditional sailing boat made entirely from repurposed plastic waste.
In the words of Sylvia Earle, “There is plenty of reason for hope. This is the best time ever for change.”