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World Earth Day: pitting the planet against plastics

“In the 1960s, the most common perception of pollution was that it’s the smell of progress, the smell of prosperity, and we were able to create a context in which people began to change their behavior… for environmental reasons.” – Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day

 

With the theme of Planet vs. Plastics, the World Earth Day movement says it recognises that “we are in a war against the onslaught of plastic that threatens the sustainability of our Earth.” In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once—and then thrown away.

Each year, millions of tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean, threatening marine life and its ecosystems. Plastic waste also pollutes the air we breathe and the land we walk on. This is not just an environmental issue but also a public health concern with the potential to remain a threat for countless generations to come.

Study after study continues to reveal a disturbing prognosis: if current practices continue unabated, there will be an increase in hormonal illnesses, cancers and cardiovascular system damage related to plastic production and consumption.

 

A signature campaign for a Global Plastic Treaty has been kickstarted that includes the following goals:

  • A 60% of reduction of all fossil fuel-based plastic production by 2040
  • Requiring producers and retailers of plastics to be liable for the cost of any environmental or health-related damages in accordance with the “producer pays” principle
  • Public and private sector investments in innovation to replace all fossil fuel-based plastics
  • Ban all plastic-related tobacco products including, but not limited to tobacco filters and e-cigarettes
  • Ban the export of plastic waste
  • End the incineration of plastic waste
  • Support innovative solutions and alternatives to plastic in all sectors

 

Global Earth Day

The start of the celebration of Earth Day on 22 April is an inspiring story that started in

1970, when a young graduate student, Denis Hayes, helped mobilise an estimated 20 million Americans to successfully lobby the government to make the environment a priority. The big impetus at the time was a big oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. Shortly afterward, many new legislation for cleaner air and water was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency was established.

By 1990, the same Hayes helped to organise the first global Earth Day with over 140 countries and 200 million people participating in a series of ways. Though these seeds of change may have sprung up in different areas of the globe, the reverberations from this unified day continued to shape international efforts for environmental action.

The 1992 Earth Summit brought together representatives from 179 nations, and the group produced two significant conventions: A Framework Convention on Climate Change and A Framework Convention on Biological Diversity. [Read more]

 

Planet vs Plastics

While the recycling of plastic is problematic and controversial, with many activists blaming the role of “Big Oil” behind the challenges and struggles to recycle plastic, other materials like aluminium, paper, and glass are recycled successfully. Aluminium is one of the most recycled and recyclable materials used today.

In Africa, recycling is often still a way for many impoverished people to survive and make a living, collecting cans, plastic, paper and cardboard throughout their communities and cities and finding recyclable materials by picking at landfills.

 

Waste “choking” African cities

The alarm about the “critical state” of solid waste accumulation in Africa was sounded at the recent Africa’s Green Economy Summit in Cape Town.

“In 2020, sub-Saharan Africa generated roughly 200-million tonnes of solid waste per year and that amount is going to triple by 2050,” said Catalina Marulanda, World Bank Practice Manager in Urban Development for Central & Southern Africa, and moderator of the panel discussion on “Circular economy: Solid waste management.”

“Circular economy is about resource management,” said Ntobeko Boyana of Ben Peta Holdings and Director at the African Circular Economy Network (ACEN). “The first thing we have to do is design waste when we design products.”

He added that any landfill in South Africa is a hub of economic activity, and that the industry is comfortable with that. “Why not put infrastructure there so that it can be done safely? How do we plan for the future?” Boyana said the industry needs to be working with research institutions and look at waste challenges and innovations, such as formalising what is happening at landfills with waste pickers. [Read more].

 

Recycling gems

The Covid pandemic had an electrifying effect (particularly with e-delivery solutions) on online shopping and end-to-end delivery worldwide, but it has also in many ways, contributed to the problem of the use of plastics, particularly those that are not recyclable. One report has stated that shopping online creates five times more emissions from packaging for online orders (corrugated boxes, bubble wrap, etc.) compared with the emissions associated with the use of plastic or paper bag consumers typically bring home from the mall.

Fortunately, recycling has long been a creative outlet for many designers, artists and entrepreneurs. Here are two ladies on the continent who have turned their passion into successful businesses:

EcoPost uses 100% recycled plastics to make aesthetic, durable and environmentally friendly plastic lumber for use in applications ranging from fencing to landscaping and furniture. Lorna Rutto is a young Kenyan “ecopreneur” and the founder of EcoPost. Her venture has not only provided Kenya with a commercial and environmental alternative to timber but has also created over 300 jobs with over $150,000 annual revenue. The business has made over 10,000 posts which have helped save over 250 acres of forests.

soleRebels is Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu’s brain child, designing and making Ethiopian footwear that is distinctive in that it is 100% handmade using locally-sourced and recycled materials like old car tires, discarded clothes and hand-loomed organic fabrics. The enterprise employs experienced and highly-skilled local craftsmen who convert the recycled products into top-notch footwear products.

Bethlehem started soleRebels in 2004 with less than $10,000 in capital she raised from family and friends. Today, the company has more than 100 employees and nearly 200 local raw material suppliers and produces over 70,000 pairs every year. The eco-friendly brand of footwear now sells in more than 50 countries around the world, including the USA, Canada, Japan and Switzerland. soleRebels is the first footwear company in the world to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organization.

In the end, it is about creating harmony about what we need and what the planet can spare. One thing is for sure, Mother Earth is spilling over.

 

Botswana Brew

The principles of nature-based solutions to a greener economy ánd living in peaceful coexistence with nature are being practised quite literally in Botswana. Dr Graham McCulloch is an ecologist who, in the course of his environmental and conservation work in the Okavango Delta, co-founded a brewery, Okavango Craft Brewery, in Maun, Botswana. It is a unique venture that turns millet from “elephant aware” farmers and mineral water from the Okavango Delta into quality craft beer.

He explains: “By generating a value addition in terms of what the farmers are doing to coexist with wildlife and monetising that through the manufacturing of value added products that are sold back to the tourism industry with the story that generates the additional value, that really is trying to merge the different sectors under the banner of sustainable development, whereby the agricultural value chain is benefiting also from a wildlife economy, through the production of these products that are benefiting farmers who are making an effort to coexist with wildlife.” [Read more]

 

This article first appeared in the GREEN ECONOMY EXPRESS, issued by Africa’s Green Economy Summit.

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