Have you ever wondered what happens to that bottle of your favorite shampoo or lotion after you finish with it and throw it in the bin?
The answer, by the way, depending on how you dispose of it (or the waste infrastructure available in your country), is that it could end up back in your hands (or somebody else’s) with a fresh supply of the shampoo or lotion, or that it could end up somewhere as a part of garbage by the road or in a sewage system in your town or at the bottom of an ocean.
Each year, the world produces more than 350 million tonnes of plastic waste – a figure set to double by 2034. Of this, 50 percent is single-use plastic, and only nine percent has ever been recycled. Currently, there is an estimated 75 to 199 million tons of plastic waste in our oceans, with a further 15 million tons of plastic entering the marine environment yearly. It is estimated that by 2050, oceans will have more plastic than fish.
No economic incentive to recycle
“A tiny percentage of used plastic ends up getting recycled because, in most countries, there’s no economic incentive to recycle,” said Nairobi-based Nzambi Matee, a material scientist turned “wasteprenuer” and the founder of Gjenge Makers Limited. “It’s cheaper to make a plastic product out of virgin plastic than it is from recycling. Also, the product you get from virgin plastic is of way higher quality. The margins you get from recycling plastic are so narrow that you cannot build a very profitable business out of it. This is discouraging a lot of companies from venturing into recycling plastics.”
For recycled plastics, the journey starts immediately after the waste is picked from the households. “There are two types of recycling,” said Nzambi. “Chemical or mechanical recycling. Mechanical recycling involves changing its form. You can mechanically recycle plastic twice, but only if the plastic integrity remains intact, determined through the melt flow index. Recycling it a third time would make it lose its viscosity. Once it can’t be recycled again, an ideal case is to morph into something else like is the case with Gjenge (turns plastic into building bricks) or to incinerate it.”
From November 13 to 19, 2023, representatives of different countries convened in Nairobi, Kenya, for the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. Among the issues discussed was plastic justice in the context of the plastic crisis during a session organized by the Resilient Foundation in collaboration with On Est Pret and Ritual Arts.
There is no justice in plastic
“Plastic justice for me means equality and fairness, especially to the waste handlers,” said Charles Oduor, a former waste picker from Nairobi’s informal settlement of Mathare. “Garbage collectors are the people who are at the bottom of the plastic value chain. They are the most important people; yet, plastic producers who are at the center of the plastic problem benefit, and the waste pickers don’t. Garbage collectors can’t sell directly to the recycling companies that prefer to deal with middlemen. So, justice would be served if the resources would be fairly distributed to reach even the pickers.”
According to Sian Sutherland, the co-founder of PlasticFree and A Plastic Planet, there is no justice in plastic. “Plastic and justice are two words that don’t sit well together. If I look at the entire supply chain of plastic from the minute it’s dragged out of the ground, the toxicity and the inequality created there for the people who live near the plastic production facilities in places such as Louisiana in the United States, this is the very beginning of the injustice of plastic. This injustice continues all through the unending plastic life,” she said.
For her, plastic is not a waste or a pollution problem. It’s an industry problem, a design and production problem, and that is where the responsibility and the justice have to happen. Therefore, industries need to step up their level of responsibility.
“Another form of plastic injustice is that we are allowed to send our plastic waste for other countries to deal with. It’s shameful for us as a country, the UK, where we export over 60 percent of our plastic waste, often to countries that don’t have waste infrastructure. Every country has to deal with its dirt,” said Sutherland.
Most waste generated by the fashion industry
In 2022, Germany was estimated to be the world’s largest plastic waste exporter, with shipments totaling over 734 thousand metric tons. Japan and some European countries, such as the UK, are among the major net exporters of plastic waste. Most of the plastic waste in Kenya is imported from the United States. Most of the waste is generated by the fashion industry. Plastic waste from the fashion industry often arrives in countries like Kenya as second-hand clothes in bales, which are unsellable either because they’re damaged, too small, or unfit for the climate or local styles.
A 2021 report by the Changing Markets Foundation revealed how fast fashion has become dangerously dependent on synthetic fibers such as polyester. “Fashion is a massive plastic problem,” said Sutherland. “Overconsumption of fast fashion and inequality in the entire supply chain of fast fashion is enabled by the invention of plastic. Seventy percent of all our clothes are now made of plastic. Fifteen million clothing items are sent to one village in Ghana every week. We have poisoned the planet with fast fashion that is made of plastic. It is overwhelming.”
Despite plastic being an industry problem, it is the collective responsibility of both the plastic manufacturers and the consumers to address the plastic crisis. “We need to start holding companies and countries to account. Accountability is key. I feel that a legally binding treaty would enable countries to deal with plastic pollution by making producers accountable for their environmental footprints,” said Olivia Tamon, a lawyer and an environmentalist from Cameroon. “If the treaty being discussed now is adopted, it will provide a legal base for prosecution.”
Sutherland thinks we need to be more ambitious beyond just having and enacting laws. The economic opportunity is not to continue with plastic but to innovate new or alternative products.
Address the plastic crisis
“We need to rethink how much we buy. We invented a single-use society, and now it has come back to haunt us. We have the power to invent a multiple-use society. I come from a country where we buy so much we sometimes have to outsource the storage of our stuff. We need to buy less — have less demand for natural resources. Although I lay blame on the foot of the inventor of plastics. They didn’t know that this was going to happen, but we have taken an incredible material, and we are misusing it,” she said.
According to Nzambi, our individual contributions need not be grand. “The first thing is to sort at the source. Back in our houses, everyone can get a sack, and once you finish drinking your yogurt or juice, clean that bottle and put it in the sack. Try as much to separate the recyclable ones from the non-recyclables. This makes the wrapping-sorting process for the garbage collector easier,” said Nzambi.
Other than sorting at the source, she advises that consumers be cautious about small consumption cultures where instead of buying multiple packages of the same product, we go for a single larger one if we can afford it. Further, educating the public on plastic management, since almost everything we use is made of plastic, would go a long way to help address the plastic crisis.
Gloriah Amondi is a Kenya-based multilingual human rights lawyer, Mandarin teacher, and writer contributing to The Nation’s weekend editions. Her works have been published in journals such as Kalahari Review, Ibua Literary Journal, Lolwe Literary Magazine, and Dooney’s Café.