Fredrick Mugira, Bertha Fellow
A local organization in western Uganda, the Kazinga channel schools project, is sowing seeds of plastic waste management in young people through conservation clubs in schools.
Through these clubs, the pupils, their parents, teachers, and villagers in the sub-counties of Lake Katwe in Kasese district and Katunguru in Rubirizi district collect used plastic bottles that are later recycled into plastic shelters for saplings (growing trees) and trash bins. The remaining are burnt from the four incinerators built by this organization.
The project, funded locally by the members, operates in six primary and two secondary schools in the two districts, attracting over 2000 learners.
“Since 2015, when we started, we have collected at least 20 Fuso lorries of plastic waste, mostly plastic bottles of mineral water, soft drinks, and herbal drugs,” narrates Ramathan Baryaruha, the co-director of the project.
Baryaruha is also a primary school teacher at Katunguru primary school in the same region.
He says the level of plastic pollution in their community is “too much,” so they had to start the organization that “collects plastics, teaches the young generation about their dangers, and equips them with skills to manage it.
The global plastics treaty recognized the role of waste pickers. Waste pickers like the parents, learners, and teachers under the Kazinga channel schools project play an essential role in collecting the waste, sorting it, and having it re-enter the economy for reuse.
Kasese and Rubirizi are tourist destinations. The districts are home to Queen Elizabeth National Park. They also house three major water bodies in Uganda; Lake Edward, which Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo share; Lake George and Kazinga Channel, which connects the two lakes.
Local and international tourists coming to these districts have been accused of dumping plastic bottles there. And also, villagers who buy soft drinks and herbal drugs are equally blamed.
“We have strong winds here. Every time it blows, these plastic bottles end up in lakes (Lakes Edward and George and Kazinga channel). After some time, they get filled with water and sink to the bottom of the lakes,” laments Baryaruha.
“They (plastics) are consumed by the fish we eat. We are eating plastics,” further laments Baryaruha.
According to the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI), the two lakes and the Kazinga channel have an annual fish catch of 6,637 tons (t) as per the 2020 assessments.
How the project works
Leaners, most of whom are day scholars, pick up used plastic bottles in their homes and take them to their schools. Like the learners, their parents and villagers gather used plastic bottles from their communities and drop them at nearby schools.
One day in a month, the teachers, learners, and some parents come together to participate in cleaning villages, urban centers’ streets, and roads and planting trees. During this exercise, used plastic bottles are picked up and dropped at nearby schools.
Once at school, the used plastic bottles are sorted. Good ones are recycled into plastic shelters for saplings and trash bins. The old and dirty ones are burnt in the incinerators.
Used plastic bottles that aid trees grow
The initiative is helping to manage plastic waste and grow trees for various purposes, including mitigating the effects of climate change in the region.
The plastic shelters for saplings initiative has helped over 5000 trees in Lake Katwe Sub County in Kasese district and Katunguru Sub County in Rubirizi district grow to almost maturity level.
Baryaruha says before this project, pests and wild animals would destroy young trees, some coming from Queen Elizabeth National Park, but this problem is no more.
Most of these trees have been grown in urban centers such as the nearby Katunguru town and in schools where this project operates.
Jerome Ramathan, the Chairperson of Katunguru Primary school’s management committee, says communities benefit from the trees’ presence.
“We now have shelters for our pupils. The trees are helping us combat climate change,” narrates Baryaruha.
Trees sequester carbon dioxide, an earth-warming gas from the atmosphere. After removing this greenhouse gas from the air, trees store it in their stems and the soil, releasing oxygen into the air.
Plastics bottles in an elephant
To show the magnitude of the waste of plastic bottles in their communities, the project erected a statue of an elephant made of iron bars and wire mesh, filled with used plastic bottles at Katunguru primary school in Kasese district.
According to Baryaruha, this is meant to “demonstrate the high levels of plastic pollution in the communities.”
He says the impact of uncollected plastic waste affects people and the wild animals in the neighboring Queen Elizabeth National park and water resources within the adjacent Lakes Edward and George.
“We wanted to show people, especially tourists, that plastic use is bad. Every time they mismanage plastics, some animals eat them, and at one point, they will be full of plastics and die, and the parks will be no more,” narrates Baryaruha.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed yearly after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it.”
A 2021 study found that up to 60% of stray cattle in Uganda die from consuming polyethylene bags.
The emergency of plastic waste collection movement
According to Jeconeous Musingwire, an environmental scientist with Uganda’s national environment watchdog-NEMA, the upsurge of single-use plastics worldwide has turned plastics into a “nuisance,” the reason why community organizations such as Kazinga channel schools project are coming up to manage it.
Only nine percent of over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced in the last six decades have been recycled, according to a 2021 study. This means most plastic wastes remain uncollected in the environment, causing severe ecological challenges. Plastics aren’t renewable.
Musingwire welcomes this initiative noting that it “promotes turning waste into a resource which is a good method for removing unwanted wastes from the environment.”
He insists that manufacturers of the plastic bottles must be responsible for what they generate.
“These companies have a responsibility to manage what they produce to reduce plastic wastes in the environment,” urges Musingwire.
Just like Musingwire, Sadrac Nirere, a global plastics treaty task force member, wants redefined responsibility for collecting plastic wastes.
“Companies generating this plastic should bear the responsibility of managing it,” insists Nirere, the founder of End Plastic Pollution Uganda.
He welcomes projects like this, saying they are helping to reduce the number of plastics in the environment, and wants efforts like this emulated in other parts of Uganda.