Plastic waste can drive circular economies

Desperate people who rummage for goods in rubbish bins, municipal dumps and landfill sites represent an untapped workforce that could help prevent vast amounts of plastic ending up in the ocean. So says world renowned environmental engineer and expert on marine waste, Dr Jenna Jambeck. FRED KOCKOTT and DIONY LALIEU report.

If presented with the opportunity,  the poorest of the poor could play a huge role in addressing plastic pollution, says Jambeck who grew up fascinated by the intricate make up of things.

Dr Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia has been conducting research on solid waste issues for 20 years with related projects on marine debris since 2001. Picture supplied

“I am told that I used to spend hours staring at the delicately woven tassels of a couch. I also remember mixing my mother’s perfumes and powders into all sorts of concoctions. I was a strange kid, maybe?” laughs Jambeck.

 Jambeck was in Durban this week following her participation in the first African Marine Waste Conference in Port Elizabeth and a host of follow-up engagements, from Cape Town through to KwaZulu-Natal.

Organised by the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST), the waste conference follows warnings that Africa may soon become as heavily polluted as Southeast Asia – the most polluted region in the world.

“The need is clear,” says SST director, Tony Ribbink. “Rapid development in Africa without an associated decrease in poverty levels has led to major pollution of coastal and marine areas.”

“And every time we throw away a piece of plastic, we throw away cash,” says Ribbink.

Latest research puts the value of plastic lost to the sea each year at US$120 billion.

“Plastic is a great product,” says Ribbink. “We simply don’t handle it properly. We just discard it.”

Today, marine pollution ranks high on environmental agenda worldwide. This was not the case 12 years ago when Jambeck was studying toward a doctorate in environmental engineering – a highly specialised field that uses the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems.

“I wanted to do my PhD on plastic pollution in the ocean, but doors closed in my face,” says Jambeck. “I was told nobody cared.”

But Jambeck persisted. While completing her doctorate in environmental engineering, she researched marine pollution on the side, ultimately writing a paper that earned widespread recognition. Her award-winning work on plastic waste has since featured in policy discussions in the United Nations Enviroment Programme, the US Congress as well as G7 and G20 summits.

Jambeck’s latest research paper, released this week, estimates that as much as to 8,300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date, 79% of it ending in landfills or the natural environment including the ocean.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently predicted that by 2050 there could be more plastic (by weight) than fish in the ocean.

So what can be done?

This question dominated discussions at Africa’s first marine waste conference last week and set in motion efforts to draft a Pan-African marine pollution strategy.

In her presentation, Jambeck talked of the need for technological innovation in designing biodegradable packaging and the need to empower millions of people worldwide to earn a living by collecting, sorting, recycling and selling materials that other people have thrown away.

But for such circular economy models to happen on a large scale, many more recycling stations and awareness campaigns are needed, alongside a shift in thinking and attitudes toward people who work with waste.

“Instead of this general eew-yuck response, we need to acknowledge the valuable role played by millions of people in the informal sector who work with waste every day, many of them hardly earning enough to eat,” says Jambeck, who herself fell in love on a smelly landfill site in Florida, while doing experimental research alongside a colleague, now her husband, Matt, in 2001.

Following the conference, Jambeck got insight into innovative recycling initiatives taking place South Africa, including the conversion of a dumpsite in Hermanus into a fully-fledged recycling facility that has created employment for people who previously scavenged off the dump.

Jambeck also praised the Blue Crew programme which engages women from Cato Manor in collecting and selling recyclable materials in aid of marine conservation. Supported by Grindod Bank, Jonssons and South22, the Blue Crew recently took part in a Durban harbour clean up, collecting five large bags of plastic waste which was subsequently shredded into crushed PET as part of Wildlands’ Wastepreneur programme. Wildlands also uses poorer quality plastics like chip packets and multl-layered food sachets collected at schools to make ‘green’ desks.

“This is the circular economy in action – turning waste into opportunities,” said Jambeck

The poorest of the poor can play a huge role in addressing plastic pollution, says Jambeck who grew up fascinated by the intricate make up of things.

“I am told that I used to spend hours staring at the delicately woven tassels of a couch. I also remember mixing my mother’s perfumes and powders into all sorts of concoctions. I was a strange kid, maybe?” laughs Jambeck.

Jambeck was in Durban this week following her participation in the first African Marine Waste Conference in Port Elizabeth and a host of follow-up engagements, from Cape Town through to KwaZulu-Natal.

Organised by the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST), the waste conference follows warnings that Africa may soon become as heavily polluted as Southeast Asia – the most polluted region in the world.

“The need is clear,” says SST director, Tony Ribbink. “Rapid development in Africa without an associated decrease in poverty levels has led to major pollution of coastal and marine areas.”

“And every time we throw away a piece of plastic, we throw away cash,” says Ribbink.

Latest research puts the value of plastic lost to the sea each year at US$120 billion.

“Plastic is a great product,” says Ribbink. “We simply don’t handle it properly. We just discard it.”

Today, marine pollution ranks high on environmental agenda worldwide. This was not the case 12 years ago when Jambeck was studying toward a doctorate in environmental engineering – a highly specialised field that uses the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems.

“I wanted to do my PhD on plastic pollution in the ocean, but doors closed in my face,” says Jambeck. “I was told nobody cared.”

But Jambeck persisted. While completing her doctorate in environmental engineering, she researched marine pollution on the side, ultimately writing a paper that earned widespread recognition. Her award-winning work on plastic waste has since featured in policy discussions in the United Nations Environment Programme, the US Congress as well as G7 and G20 summits.

Jambeck’s latest research paper, released this week, estimates that as much as to 8,300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date, 79% of it ending in landfills or the natural environment including the ocean.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently predicted by 2050 there could be more plastic (by weight) than fish in the ocean.

So what can be done?

This question dominated discussions at Africa’s first marine waste conference last week and set in motion efforts to draft a Pan-African marine pollution strategy.

In her presentation, Jambeck talked of the need for technological innovation in designing biodegradable packaging and the need to empower millions of people worldwide to earn a living by collecting, sorting, recycling and selling materials that other people have thrown away.

But for such a circular economy model to happen on a large scale, many more recycling stations and awareness campaigns are needed, alongside a shift in thinking and attitudes toward people who work with waste.

“Instead of this general eew-yuck response, we need to acknowledge the valuable role played by millions of people in the informal sector who work with waste every day, many of them hardly earning enough to eat,” says Jambeck, who herself fell in love on a smelly landfill site in Florida, while doing experimental research alongside a colleague, now her husband, Matt, in 2001.

Following the conference, Jambeck got insight into innovative recycling initiatives taking place South Africa, including the conversion of a dumpsite in Hermanus into a fully-fledged recycling facility that has created employment for people who previously scavenged off the dump.

Jambeck also praised the Blue Crew programme which engages women from Cato Manor in collecting and selling recyclable materials in aid of marine conservation. Supported by Grindod Bank, Jonssons and South22, the Blue Crew takes part in coastal clean ups with plastic waste  subsequently shredded into crushed PET as part of Wildlands’ Wastepreneur programme. Wildlands also uses poorer quality plastics like chip packets and multi-layered food sachets collected at schools to make ‘green’ desks.

“This is the circular economy in action – turning waste into opportunities,” said Jambeck.

  • Dr Jenna Jambeck’s visit to South Africa formed part of the U.S. Mission’s support for South Africa as a regional leader in addressing marine debris through scientific research and capacity building.

 

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