This week, heads of State, Ministers of Environment and other representatives from 175 countries will meet in Nairobi (Kenya) to negotiate an international legally binding plastics treaty that tackles the full lifecycle of plastic. This follows countless efforts by organisations, movements and affected communities everywhere to confront one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, plastic waste.
We’ve all seen the images. A turtle mistaking plastic bags for food, a beach inundated by a tsunami of bottles, and microplastics detected in the internal organs of a newborn infant. But beneath every mountain of plastic trash lurks a deeper, wider crisis in which the oil industry, over-consumption, corporate power and global injustices are enmeshed. Oceans of plastic pollution are a grisly sign of a system gone horribly wrong and the cure will have to be more than surface-deep.
It takes years of action and awareness-raising by people, organisations and leaders to get the world to pay attention. The global movement to break free from plastic, for one, has been growing over the last decade. From community groups picking up waste on their local beach to citizen scientists documenting the shocking impact of developing reusable packaging, the plastics movement is finally making headway toward a global plastics treaty.
Here are the stories of some of Africa’s zero-waste warriors on the frontlines of the fight.
Challenging the corporations at the root of the plastics problem
Generating 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, Nigeria’s plastic problem has left local communities exposed to health hazards and a degraded environment. ERA / Friends of the Earth Nigeria has been bringing the plight of those affected to the national and international stage, raising awareness and challenging the powers at the root of the problem – corporations.
The ways in which these corporations contribute to plastic waste are expansive and far-reaching, inflicting harm on people and the planet throughout the supply chain.
“We are focusing on plastic production reduction because we have to reduce plastic by all means possible. We are looking at how plastic is designed, microplastics, general waste management and the waste trade,” says Melody Enyinnaya from ERA / Friends of the Earth Nigeria, reflecting on the ongoing struggle to tackle the plastic problem in all its forms.
From oil spills to waste dumping, communities in Nigeria continue to feel the effects of unbridled plastic production in their areas by corporations like Coca-Cola, Seven-Up Bottling Company and CWAY Group. In a recent brand audit in Benin City by ERA / Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo (bottled in Nigeria by Seven-Up) were found to be the area’s biggest plastic polluters.
At the local, national and international levels, ERA / Friends of the Earth Nigeria, among other concerned groups, is actively holding these corporations accountable. Following the results of the audit, the groups came together to return the companies’ plastic waste to them directly in a ‘Return-to-Sender’ action. The action centered on two main goals: cutting plastic production and promoting the reuse revolution. The movement continues to make headway in the space, influencing waste management laws at the state level and engaging policymakers.
“We use a lot of instruments to do that, such as community engagement, dialogue with different government institutions over policy, and litigation instruments, especially in the oil and gas struggle.”Melody Enyinnaya
Looking ahead, Melody Enyinnaya expresses her hope for a time when policies will reflect the plight of those affected by ongoing plastics production and corporate impunity.
Changing the narrative for an ambitious plastics treaty
The world’s largest single point-source emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, Sasol, is located in South Africa. Among the dirtiest petrochemical facilities in the world, the people living on its fenceline are faced with the realities of rampant fossil fuel and plastic production. The conversation around plastics must, therefore, go beyond what many countries continue to view as a waste management issue.
Rico Euripidou from Groundwork / Friends of the Earth South Africa explains the dire need for this shift in the plastics narrative. “The focus for us is to debunk all the plastic myths, and clearly say Plastics are 100% fossil fuels and chemicals; we need to break free from plastic” he says.
As the world moves away from gasoline, petrochemical companies are repositioning themselves to manufacture more petrochemicals (i.e. plastics) than oil in the coming years, so policymakers looking to address climate change and the plastic problem need to shift more focus onto the industry.
But the problem is two-fold. Groundwork / Friends of the Earth South Africa is also calling attention to the more than 13,000 chemicals present in plastics today whose effects on human health and the environment are largely still a mystery. Lack of transparency and traceability surround these chemicals, according to Rico.
Plastics are at the heart of the climate, chemical pollution and biodiversity crises today. Confronting the industries whose effects have resulted in this triple crisis will require a concerted effort that groups in the South African plastics movement are calling for.
“The time for unilateralism is over. We cannot address the plastics problem unless countries take multilateral concerted global action.”Rico Euripidou
Taking action on plastics – thinking globally and acting locally
In Togo, coastal communities and fisherfolk continue to feel the dramatic effects of plastic pollution. Kokou Amagadze from Les Amis de la Terre – Togo / Friends of the Earth Togo explains the extensive effects of plastic waste on the marine environment and what that means for people.
“Fisherfolk in the coastal areas of Togo are finding more plastics in their nets than fish. The ocean provides so much for human beings but plastics are affecting its normal functioning.”Kokou Amagadze
The plastics problem, therefore, goes beyond the environmental havoc it inflicts on land and marine ecosystems. A largely intersectional issue, it impacts livelihoods, access to food, and human health in Togo. Globally, the production of plastics, fuelled by the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries, is also a major contributor to the climate crisis.
ADT-Togo brings attention to this by “Thinking globally and acting locally,” as Kokou puts it. All while cleaning up beaches and public parks and engaging with local communities and governments, ADT-Togo continues to advocate for a just plastics treaty.
“From governments to local authorities and the everyday person, all of us need to take action to resolve this important issue. This affects all of us which is why the negotiations on this Treaty are so important.”Kokou Amagadze