Scientific research may enable stricter plastic pollution laws

  • Plastic pollution is a global problem that damages marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
  • A circular economy project in Africa is working with scientists to study the impact of plastic on the oceans.
  • Scientists are accumulating evidence in the western Indian Ocean that may support tougher laws and behavioral changes.

Plastic pollution is a global problem that worries many people. We know that plastic pollution can damage marine and land environments and so on average people could eat five grams of plastic per week. However, what is not so clear to us is how we can finally end this dependency on single-use plastics.

There are more advocates than ever to end single-use plastic, and articles, videos and campaigns are being published almost daily encouraging companies and individuals to end single-use plastic. But we need more than just speeches. Words must be followed by action to reduce, reuse and recycle more plastic.

We turn to the scientific community to expand our knowledge of plastics: their short- and long-term harms; where and in what quantities plastics can be found; and research and development on how we can mitigate this problem.

Set sail to explore plastic pollution

the flipflopi is the world’s first dhow made from 100% recycled plastic. It was built on the island of Lamu, Kenya using traditional craftsmanship to demonstrate alternative uses of plastic waste and generate public and political engagement on how plastic can be part of a circular economy. Since setting sail in 2019, we’ve been involved in scientific research to find out how plastics affect our environment.

We believe that scientific research can drive behavioral and regulatory change by establishing credible narratives that engage all stakeholders in locally relevant conversations about plastic pollution.

In February 2022 we started a special expedition around the Lamu archipelago. During this time, it became clear that to effectively address the plastic problem, we need to understand how tides affect the volume and distribution of plastic in the ocean. According to IUCN, little is known about the amounts, types, trends, sources and sinks of marine litter in the western Indian Ocean.

Map showing the route of the Flipflopi Expedition around the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya.

Map showing the route of the Flipflopi Expedition around the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya.

With that in mind, we have David Obura, Founding Director of Coastal Oceans Research and Development Indian Ocean (CORDIO) East Africa, on the problem of plastic pollution, how it affects marine ecosystems and how scientific research, legislation and behavioral changes can mitigate it.

CORDIO, founded in 2003 as a non-profit, is a knowledge organization Supporting research on coral reefs to improve the health and resilience of marine ecosystems and the well-being of coastal life in the western Indian Ocean.

How has plastic pollution changed over the years?

When the use of single-use plastics began 20 years ago, I saw plastic in the ocean surge, but the amount has gone through the roof in the last five years. This is particularly evident in areas where local waste management systems cannot cope with the volumes of plastic consumed.

The amount of plastic is even more evident in coastal areas like Kiunga in northern Kenya, where secluded beaches with turtle nesting sites act as plastic traps. Here, communities were moved to action and began finding innovative ways to address the problem, creating art out of the hundreds of flip-flops that washed ashore.

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled and a whopping 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful action to tackle plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with tech giant SAP to form a group of more than 2,000 garbage collectors and measure the amounts and types of plastic they collect. This data is then analyzed along with the prices paid by buyers in Ghana and internationally across the value chain.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can transform the global take-make-dispose economy into a circular economy, where products and materials are transformed, reclaimed and reused to reduce environmental impact.

Read more in our impact story.

What effects have you observed on underwater ecosystems?

Unfortunately, most plastics seep into the sediment unnoticed during degradation and can therefore only be assessed scientifically. For cost reasons, research is limited. However, plastics were found everywhere we looked.

Additionally, microbial communities that help these ecosystems thrive can thrive on microplastics in the water. However, new potentially threatening microbes can grow on microplastics, causing disease and contributing to the deterioration of the health of coral reefs worldwide.

How can we solve the plastic problem in the sea?

The global economy is currently working on a linear model in which products are made from raw materials and then disposed of. We need a circular economy model, where products are made with reusability and recyclability in mind, so that the life cycle of products can be extended and overall waste reduced.

If more research and development were focused on finding more innovative ways to reuse and recycle existing plastic waste, while ensuring that new products are created as part of a circular economy model, we could start to address the issue.

While a circular economy may offer a solution for future plastics, more effort is needed to address the existing problem through better waste management to make beach clean-ups a thing of the past.

Why is it important to research the presence of plastics?

To find ways to deal with plastic pollution, we need to know what we are dealing with. In order to clean up, recycle and reuse it, we need to fully understand the situation.

We must ask: where does it come from? where is it; What are the most common types of plastics? what can we do with it; How does it affect the environment?

Once we’ve answered these, we can start thinking about what to do next. Part of the responsibility of scientific research is to prove what’s out there and what the consequences are if you don’t act.

How can scientific research change behavior and legislation?

Scientific research can show that effective and manageable measures can be taken to change the situation. But for legislation to work, it requires tremendous commitment from lawmakers to act on research findings. If laws are not effectively enforced or do not provide viable alternatives and consistent deterrents, nothing changes.

Our ongoing commitment

Tackling plastic waste will require a holistic approach – from the scientific community to legislators to individual behavior changes – all stakeholders must play their part.

The Flipflopi Project will continue to work within its three pillars: Education, Innovation and Impact to raise awareness of the problem of plastic pollution. We will continue to engage in scientific research and press policymakers to make legislative changes related to plastic production and consumption, while supporting local, community-driven waste management systems.

About Thelma Wilt

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