Managing marine litter in southern Africa

SANF 20 no 27 – by Admire Ndhlovu
Marine litter is posing a serious risk to ecosystems, human health, tourism and fisheries, and southern Africa is making efforts to address the challenge.

The litter consists largely of plastic waste discarded into rivers and beaches, which then enters the ocean through storm water runoff or directly discharged at sea from ships.

An estimated eight million metric tonnes of plastic is at present estimated to end up in oceans every year, according to UN Environment Programme.

Plastic has a lifespan of approximately 450 years and never fully degrades but rather shrinks into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.

Global figures show that production of plastic is expected to double over coming decades, with envisaged severe impacts across ecosystems and societies.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further exacerbate the scourge of plastic pollution as the production of hand sanitisers, face masks and other personal protective equipment involves the use of plastic.

According to the United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution, it is estimated that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution, with 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastic debris.

A major producer of plastics in southern Africa is South Africa, where only 25 percent of waste is recycled, according to the Plastics Material Flow and End of Life Management in South Africa report.

As a result, it is estimated that as much as 250,000 tonnes of plastic enter the sea as marine litter every year making the country one of the top ocean polluters globally, as noted in a 2015 study on land to ocean plastic discharge.

In the United Republic of Tanzania capital Dar es Salaam, the amount of plastic in the total municipal waste composition increased from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2014. This was primarily from the increase in beverage bottles, packaging of food stuffs and plastic bags used by small and large-scale commercial vendors.

Mozambique, with a coastline of about 2,500 km and half of its population making its livelihood within coastal communities, has a high risk of plastic waste that can eventually cause damage to marine life and industry.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo capital Kinshasa generates an average solid waste of around 1.2 kilogrammes per person per day, making the city one of the highest waste producers in the region. Other major cities in the region have comparable figures.

To address the challenge, SADC Member States are strengthening laws and building capacity for management of marine litter.

South Africa in 2019 embarked on a review of the effectiveness of its plastic bag policies to assess implementation gaps and identify possible areas of improvement and new options, including a possible ban on single use plastic bags.

Tanzania enacted Plastic Bags Prohibition Regulations in June 2019 that prohibit import, export, manufacture, sale, storage, supply and use of all plastic carrier bags, regardless of thickness. The ban exempts plastic packaging for medical services, industrial products, construction industry, agricultural sector, foodstuffs, and sanitary and waste management.

The country has also increased recycling efforts in the last five years. A recently formed Tanzania Recyclers Association is promoting growth of the plastic recycling industry and the use of eco-friendly packaging and bags.

Member States are at various stages participating in global efforts to curb marine litter.

Seven SADC Member States participate in the Nairobi Convention for the Protection, Management and Development of Coastal and Marine Environment of the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region. They are Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa and Tanzania.

The convention, first signed in 1985 and entered into force in 1996, covers 10 African countries extending from Somalia in the north to South Africa in the south.

Through its Protocol for the Protection of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the WIO from land-based sources and activities, the convention provides the legal framework where contracting parties work together towards a prosperous WIO region with healthy rivers, coasts and oceans.

Angola, Namibia and South Africa are parties to the Abidjan Convention for Cooperation in the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Atlantic Coast of the West, Central and Southern Africa region.

The convention covers marine area from Mauritania to South Africa. It provides an important framework through which national policy makers and resource managers implement control measures in the protection and development of the marine and coastal environment of the West and Central African region.

At global level, other commitments include the resolution of the third UN Environment Assembly meeting in December 2017 on marine litter and single use plastics that called for a source-to-sea approach and increase in activities around prevention of marine litter and microplastics. The source-to-sea approach addresses the linkages between land, water, coast and ocean ecosystems, leading to holistic natural resources management and economic development.

Furthermore, the fourth UN Environment Assembly held in 2019 adopted three resolutions that deal with marine litter, management of single use plastics and prevention of land-based sources of marine pollution.

Other efforts include the UN’s Clean Seas Campaign, endorsed by SADC Member States at the third UN Environment Assembly, which provides a platform for governments to engage the general public, civil society and the private sector to find solutions to the plastic litter challenge.

The campaign seeks to dramatically reduce the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastic.

Beyond the aesthetic impact, marine litter bears potential economic implications to maritime activities, such as fisheries and the aquaculture sectors.

The slow rate of degradation of marine litter items and the continuously growing quantity of the litter and debris disposed are, therefore, leading to a gradual increase found at sea and on the shores.

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