A Conversation with Peter Manyara, IUCN
According to UNEP, thousands of pieces of marine plastics are estimated to be afloat on every square mile of the ocean. As an upcoming Nairobi Convention and WIOMSA report, Marine Plastic Litter in the Western Indian Ocean Region: A Synthesis Report states, the Western Indian Ocean is well-known for its remarkable biodiversity and beautiful beaches that support recreation, tourism, and fishing activities. However, the “continued degradation of the Western Indian Ocean due to marine plastic litter has a potential of reversing socio-economic gains made in the region in the recent past.”
The Nairobi Convention Secretariat recently sat down with Peter Manyara, Regional Program Manager, Coastal and Ocean Resilience, at IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office, to discuss the issue of marine plastic in the Western Indian Ocean.
Below, find excerpts from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
How are marine plastics affecting the Western Indian Ocean region? Why should people care?
Firstly, it is important to acknowledge progress. Since UNEP and other organizations started looking at this issue over a ten-year period, the level of awareness around the implications of marine litter, especially plastics, has become more pronounced. I don’t think you can open any major news channel without coming across a story on marine litter.
The reason for that is because the presence of marine litter has very serious implications to marine wildlife, fisheries and human health. For example, abandoned or discarded fishing gear entangles marine wildlife such as turtles, hindering their mobility, or entangle propellers of local fisherfolk boats, thereby inhibiting smooth navigation. Floating plastic can also serve to translocate species from one location to another, thereby spreading invasive species to new areas.
Additionally, it should be of major concern to humans when marine litter breaks down and becomes microplastics. Many animals ingest this microplastic, thinking that it is food. Then the animals think their bellies are full, but they then end up dying because of false satiation.
Microplastics in the ocean concentrate persistent organic pollutants (POPs), harmful metals and toxins, while some already comprise toxic chemicals and additives within their structures. They therefore serve as transport agents for these toxins across the ocean, bringing them to different zones and species. The plastic being ingested by species is then ingested by humans when we eat fish, shellfish, and macro invertebrates from the ocean. Indeed, over the past few years, many research organizations have published papers on the likelihood that we’re ingesting high volumes of plastics from these marine organisms.
What sort of challenges can countries expect to face when trying to combat the problem of marine litter?
Globally, plastics are produced by just a few fossil fuel and chemical companies, mostly located in Europe, US, and Asia. Majority of countries in the Western Indian Ocean region are not primary producers of virgin plastics but are just consumers who import resins for producing different kinds of plastic objects. The countries importing these materials (apart from South Africa, which produces a significant proportion of its resins) suffer from not having the prerequisite infrastructure for handling the end-of-life cycle of these plastics.
IUCN, through the kind support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has worked with a number of countries in the region through the Marine Plastics and Coastal Communities project with tools, knowledge, capacity building, and policy options to close the plastic leakage tap. For example, IUCN applied the UNEP-IUCN National Guidance for Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action (a methodological framework that helps countries to prioritize interventions to abate plastic pollution) in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and South Africa. These assessments provide an improved understanding of plastic flows and leakage at country level. The detailed analyses which highlight flows and leakage of plastics by polymer, applications, sectors, regions and across the waste management value chain, provide a prioritized list of key intervention areas to reduce plastic leakage to the environment. These national assessments, including the methodological framework and resources on how to use it are published here.
For example, across the countries, we found that the packaging sector is a big culprit in the amount of plastic consumed and leaked in these countries accounting for an average of 60 per cent of all plastics leaked to waterways across the countries. The problem with the packaging sector is that the plastics used are short-lived, compared to other sectors such as textile, auto-industry and agriculture where the plastic tends to be long-lived.
In addition, only about 21% of plastics we use globally are actually recyclable. That means that there’s not a lot of incentive for anyone to actually sort through and collect all plastic, as there is much that is not recyclable. Absent these incentives, for example, it is difficult to convince the private sector to invest in large-scale infrastructure in the recycling sector, given the fragile policy and regulatory contexts on plastics across the countries.
Finally, the region has many other issues with which to contend. For instance, there are the cyclones in Mozambique, high unemployment due to COVID, etc. Therefore, a lot of national financing goes to supporting people’s welfare, as opposed to investing in recycling infrastructure.
In your experience, what sort of measures have been the MOST successful in curbing marine plastic litter?
One of the measures that seems to be fairly effective is some of the stringent plastic bans, especially those targeted at single-use carrier bags or certain single-use plastics. When you go to Rwanda, for example, or Kenya, you don’t see lots of plastic bags in the environment, compared to pre-ban years. In Kenya, it has been observed that drainage systems in major cities are no longer blocked as much by plastics and hence reduced flooding following heavy rain events. South Africa, meanwhile, through a new Regulation on Extended Producer Responsibility has made it mandatory for specific obligated industries, including producers, brand owners and product importers to bear some level of responsibility in managing their plastics at end-of-life. From a policy perspective, there are ongoing related engagements across the countries which is good progress.
In South Africa, the private sector is mobilizing to respond to the EPR regulation through various strategies, while in Kenya, industry stakeholders outlined the Kenya Plastics Action Plan to help companies realize improved waste management and zero waste in the manufacturing sector. Both countries have also established national Plastics Pacts, which are voluntary platforms to stimulate innovation, dialogue, and collaboration to assist in the transition towards a circular plastics economy.
Acknowledging the prevailing context, the IUCN-led assessments do point to a number of opportunity areas for national policy and decision making. These include, strengthening national plastic recycling capacity e.g. through lessening the burden of entry and scaling for informal actors; measures to reduce production and import of plastic objects that do not benefit from a recycling solution in-country; strengthening tools, capacities, and knowledge for municipalities and local government to address plastic pollution in major cities, towns, and peri-urban areas; measures to address widespread littering and open burning of plastics; reform of policies to increase the value of after-use plastics; increased funding to local initiatives to address the socio-equity gap in the circular economy, especially through the integration of informal sector actors in the waste economy.
At the action level, IUCN launched the Circular Plastic Economy Innovation Lab which harnesses the power of innovation, science, and blue entrepreneurship to generate groundbreaking business ideas, design unique business models, and provide state of the art incubation support. So far, seven initiatives have been supported in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. There is significant level of innovation to address plastic waste that is emerging amongst the youth where increased financial support could go a long way in helping them pursue new livelihood opportunities while diverting plastic waste away from the marine environment.
It’s important to note that while the UN Environment Assembly provides a global platform to find solutions to address the global plastics crisis at scale, the ultimate resultant instrument will be arrived at through consensus and compromise by many interest parties and stakeholders. For example, countries with large plastic industries may be interested in protecting such industries and their workforce, while downstream countries, highly impacted by pollution may prefer more stringent measures, say on plastic production. So we should not aim for a perfect instrument, but one that is functional and improves over and above the current fragmented state of global governance around plastics.
But from my own perspective, what we saw in the past few weeks at UNEA 5.2 points to a positive future. The treaty promises to address the entire plastics life cycle, and thereby an opportunity to look at the problem more holistically. The cycle starts with the extraction of feedstock and production of chemicals and fossil fuels used in the manufacturing processes. Then the issue of how plastic flows through society, how it is managed in a circular economy, and ultimately the implications it has in different parts of the world would need to be addressed.
I echo the call from the Africa Group to the UNEA Ad Hoc Open Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics, who emphasized the need for a strengthened means of implementation to support action in the future treaty, one that provides for adequate and sustainable financial support, transfer of technology, and capacity building. This means support to low-income countries who don’t have the capacity to address certain issues. This could take the form of co-financing or a Clearinghouse Mechanism to help countries understand the different financing options and how to access them. But another thing I would wish to see in there is support to non-state actors (like civil society or the private sector) many of whom have been working on this issue extensively. Support to these actors will only serve to strengthen actions that governments are taking.
For more on marine litter and Peter Manyara’s work, visit the IUCN Website.