“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 hosted in Port Elizabeth during July 2017.
The conference brought together about 200 delegates from around the world, including scientists, educators, government and policy makers, and industry representatives.
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 now have the ability to gather 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.
With Africa now rated as 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.
One of the challenges is that Africa is relatively data-poor regarding waste management. This obstacle must be overcome as, in order to effectively implement waste management programmes, baseline data on the waste situation in Africa must be obtained. Dr Jenna Jambeck presented her 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. Ocean Conservancy presented its 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 programmes are vital to local and global success.
Peter Murphy from NOAA (United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) 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 the United States of America.
Members of government and policy makers are also important stakeholders, instrumental in combating marine debris. The Secretary-Generals 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. There were heated debates stirred up in panel discussions which included PETCO (South African PET Recycling Company) and POLYCO (Polyolefin Recycling Company), as well as at parallel sessions with Rethink the Bag.
One of the messages which came out of the conference is that it has become increasingly clear that waste is an economic opportunity. Africa has an opportunity to 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 programme, 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, a “Strategy on Marine Waste: Guide to Action for Africa”; and the African Marine Waste Network. This feedback will be written into the Strategy document and used to further guide and design the Network.
The conference focussed on innovative 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.
Indonesia’s deputy minister of the environment, 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% reduction 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.”