Fredrick Mugira, Bertha Challenge Fellow

After he had finished drinking his soda, Elioda Nabasa left the used Coca-cola plastic bottle in the pickup truck he was traveling in. Unaware of the presence of the used bottle, Bukenya Robert drove the car to the washing bay in Rwebikoona, Mbarara city, southwestern Uganda.

Only identified as Murefu, the man who washed the vehicle discarded the used bottle at a nearby dumping site. Here, the used bottle remained for three days. After it had rained on the fourth day, floods slowly washed away the used bottle to a trench leading to a nearby water channel. It is in this channel where I last saw Elioda’s used plastic bottle.

If this empty bottle continued its journey, it might have ended in River Rwizi. The water channel in Rwebikoona, in the southern part of Mbarara city, drains into River Rwizi.

Other factors constant, it could have drifted up to Lake Victoria via the Rwizi River. It could have gone up to the Mediterranean sea via the river Nile from Lake Victoria. Rwizi river drains into Lake Victoria, which also empties into River Nile. The Nile flows to the Mediterranean sea.

Due to the rural nature of Mbarara city and several other urban centers in Africa’s great lakes region, plastic waste, just like other wastes, is discarded into the environment, some of it ending up in water bodies.

For instance, streams, rivers, and water channels from urban centers such as Kasese municipality, Katwe town on the Uganda side, and Vitshumbi on DR Congo drain plastic debris into Lake Edward. The same happens to Lake Albert as streams and rivers from adjacent urban centers such as Kanara town, Hoima city on the Uganda side, and Parombo, Tchomia, and Kafe towns on the DR Congo side flow into it.

A plastic bottle in Lake George. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Dr. Vianney Natugonza, a fisheries expert and senior lecturer at Busitema University maritime Institute, testifies that plastics are “always glaringly visible” in some rivers draining these lakes.

Why are there large volumes of plastics?  

A 2022 investigation into the concentration of microplastics in some African Rift Valley lakes observes that plastic wastes are visible on the major landing sites.

The study notes that shorelines are littered with polythene bags and used plastic bottles — some in decaying form.

The reasons advanced for the current large volumes of plastics in the environment are many; one of them is that plastics are inexpensive and durable, making them very adaptable for different uses. Also, the chemical structure of most plastics renders them resistant to biodegradation. And as a result, “they remain in the environment, largely unaltered for very long periods,” according to Dr. David Were, a water quality researcher and lecturer at Makerere University, Kampala.

Byamukama Patrick Byaruhanga, the senior fisheries officer at the directorate of fisheries resources in Uganda’s agriculture ministry, blames it on “poor enforcement” of laws meant to regulate the manufacture, sale, and dumping of plastic wastes in Uganda.

Similarly, Nirere Sadrac, founder of End Plastic Pollution Uganda, laments that Uganda’s laws to control plastic pollution are not regularly enforced.

“Producers of these plastics are looked at in the law as the entities supposed to collect this waste, but that part is being ignored and is not enforced because there is no political will,” notes Nirere.

Medard Mwesigwa, a retailer who operates a bar and grocery along Makhnising street in Mbarara city, where Elioda bought the Coca-cola soda, concurs with Sadrac.

“Manufacturers do not have a direct mechanism for collecting their used plastic bottles. We sell but never collect, unlike the glass bottles that we take back,” narrates Medard.

2021 study by the GKMA PET Plastic Recycling Partnership found that about 79% of all plastic waste generated in Uganda is dumped into landfills or the environment, 12% is incinerated, and only 9% is recycled.

Who are the polluters?

Uganda has over 25 soft drinks and beverages companies. Almost all of them still bottle some of their drinks in Single-Use Plastic products(SUPs) that are used once or for a short period and discarded. The most prominent manufacturers include multinational corporations such as Coca-cola (for Rwenzori water and coca-cola products), Crown beverages (for Pepsi products), and Hariss International (for Rock boom and Riham-cola products).

Used soda, mineral water, and herbal drinks bottles form the most significant portion of plastics polluting water bodies in Uganda.

A 2022 audit for brands that generate plastic waste polluting Uganda’s environment by End Plastic Pollution in partnership with Break Free From Plastic named Coca-Cola as Uganda’s top plastic polluter. Pepsi-Cola is in the second position.

Similarly, a Break Free From Plastic’s 2022 global brand audit report named Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Nestlé as the world’s top plastic polluters for five years running.

“All these companies are polluting our environment will enormous amounts of plastics,” maintains Nirere Sadrac, founder of End Plastic Pollution.

Sadrac, a global plastics treaty task force member, wants redefined responsibility for collecting plastic waste.

“Companies generating this plastic should bear the responsibility of managing it,” insists Nirere.

Efforts to get a comment from Coca-Cola Uganda were futile. The request for an interview appointment was received but never granted.

Last year, Coca-Cola Company announced its aim of having “at least 25% of all beverages globally across its portfolio of brands sold in refillable/returnable glass or plastic bottles, or refillable containers through a traditional fountain or Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers” by 2030.

It also targets to “collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030,” according to the press release.

What is the government doing?

In 2019, Uganda revised the environmental law (the National Environment Act No. 5 2019) prohibiting plastic carrier bags under 30 microns. But these are still being manufactured and used widely in the country.

It also imposed producer extended responsibility as part of the polluter pays principle to ensure that those who produce plastics clean them from the environment.

However, some manufacturers and traders of these products still oppose these laws, engaging in legal and political methods. Seemingly, they fear these laws could put them out of business.

The “legislations are there, but there is no implementation” because the manufacturers and traders of plastic products have “political guardians, most of them in the government,” according to a senior Ugandan health and environment journalist, Cliff Abenaitwe.

Uganda Manufacturers Association (UMA), an umbrella body of all manufacturers in Uganda, believes manufacturers have a crucial role in reducing environmental plastics pollution.

“We are engaging the manufacturers to take extra responsibility for what they produce,” narrates Muhammad Mabilah Muzamil, the Manager of Policy and advocacy at UMA.

“We are bringing an extended producer responsibility scheme where a producer will be responsible for disposing of PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles. They are going to be contributing a certain amount towards the cleaning element of it,” says Muhammad

Used plastic bottles in River Rwizi. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Lakes and rivers of plastics

Most plastic pollutants find their way into the water bodies in Uganda through direct littering or dumping.

According to Dr. Were, the direct dumping of garbage into the lakes or rivers in Uganda is still widespread in many areas. He cites the municipal waste management companies noting that some don’t have waste dumping sites or have them but violate and end up dumping in undesignated areas, including lakeshores or lakes.

But also, fishers contribute to the direct littering of water bodies by throwing plastics, such as drinking water bottles, into the water bodies when they go fishing. They also dispose of plastic floats into these water bodies that they embed on the nets for fishing.

Dr. Were says plastic waste materials can also enter water bodies through stormwater runoff. He cites an example of heavy rainfall events, saying stormwater carries plastics from homes, and business centers, along the roads and dumps them into water bodies. “Water bodies usually lie at the lowest points of any catchment and therefore receive all the catchment pollutants through runoff,” argues Dr. Were.

Plastic bottles in River Rwizi at Buremba in Mbarara city. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

The other pathway is through the wind. “Many plastic materials are so lightweight that they are easily blown away by the wind into the water bodies,” notes Dr. Were. He says plastic pollutants can also end up in water bodies through sewage and industrial effluent disposal.

“Many of the personal care and cosmetic products we use in our daily lives contain microbeads or tiny plastics products,” says Dr. Were, citing wet wipes, shower gels, face scrubs, and sanitary items, stressing that these easily “get down into the sewage system.”

And also, some plastic processing factories or other general factories dispose of wastewater containing plastic material from industrial processes of the products, which are either dispersed directly to the environment or through the wastewater.

According to Dr. Were, many existing wastewater treatment plants cannot remove plastic pollutants because they are not designed to do so. So this means that the plastic contaminants in the wastewater pass through the treatment processes and get into water bodies.

Polluted by custodians: Fishers litter water bodies with plastics

When the sun had nearly set, John Depari and two other fishers slowed down their motorized boat and said to one another, “It is here,” before casting nets somewhere in the quiet waters of Lake Edward in western Uganda.

It was not only the nets they cast: there were stones, empty plastic bottles of soft drinks, and pieces of plastic slippers tied to the nets to enable them to float and sink simultaneously. These plastic bottles and pieces of slippers, also known as floats, are also crucial in the identification of the nets’ location.

“For a fifty-foot net, we put a bottle at one end and a bottle at the other. We put various pieces of plastic slippers in the middle to enable the net to float,” narrates Depari.

Depari cannot recall the number of plastic bottles and slippers he has used in the past three years; he knows they are “many.” “Haaaa, maybe over 300 bottles and thousands of slippers. They are very many,” he notes. Depari is not the only one doing this.

A fisher at Lake George in Uganda ties empty plastic bottles to the fishing net. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Taremwa Herbert, a fisher in the Kazinga channel that connects Lakes Edward and George, has been using plastic bottles and pieces of plastic slippers to enable his nets to float. For the last 23 years, the 42-year-old fisher cannot tell the number of plastic bottles and slippers he has used. He also says they are many, like “thousands.”

At the Kayinja landing site on the nearby Lake George, in Matsyoro sub-county, Kitagwenda district, Rajab Mumbere is one of the owners of the 45 boats at this spot. He has been fishing in Lake George for the last 20 years. Mumbere also uses plastic floats like other fishers at this landing site.

“Even when water flows, we can track the new location of our nets by looking at the plastic bottles and the slippers,” narrates Mumbere.

At the Katunguru landing site of 30 boats, Abas Bisaniko, the chairperson of the site, estimates that every day, fishers take over 100 plastic bottles to the lake, and “25 percent of these may not return.” They are left in the lake, some sink, and others are trapped by plants and deposited on the lake’s edges, where fish breed.

Similarly, at Lake Kyoga’s Zengebe landing site in Rwampanga town council, there are 70 fishing boats. Each boat usually has two fishers carrying 40 fishing nets tied together for a fishing trip. At the lower side of the long net, the fishers tie at least five sand-filled small fishing sinker bags made from plastic.

A fisher ties plastic floats on a net at Lake George. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

These help the net to sink. But they also need the same net to float. So they tie more than five empty plastic bottles on its upper side. Some of these plastic materials sink in the lake when they get off the nets or wear out, although the landing site’s chairperson, Wajja Alex, says they “regularly collect them and burn them.”

Although fishers know that plastics pollute the lakes, and are toxic and poisonous to fish and fish consumers, one thing they admit: they have “no option.”

“What do you want us to use? Without the floats, our nets will disappear. We will get out of this business. We won’t be able to support our families,” narrates John Depari, a fisher at Lake Edward.

These plastic bottles regularly get off the nets, turning into waste in the lakes. When they get off the nets, the fishers may not easily take them back to the land for proper disposal. They discard them into the lake, which Marite Ibrahim, a former fisher, confesses.

Plastic floats in a boat at Lake Edward. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

The Urbanization-pollution nexus

Two small rivers in western Uganda: Mpanga and Rwizi, are choking on plastic waste, carrying it to lakes that drain into the River Nile.

Mpanga River traverses Fort Portal, a city of 52,911 population, picking up all sorts of waste, including plastics. Swiftly snaking in hilly terrain, as its name suggests, River Mpanga flows into Lake George through Lake Edward and outs to Lake Albert through Semliki River. The three lakes drain into Albert Nile.

Equally, River Rwizi meanders through Mbarara city, inhabited by over 120,900 people, picking wastes, including plastics, on its journey from the mountainous district of Buhweju. It drains into the wetlands leading to Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.

Mbarara city generates 36 metric tons of municipal solid waste per month. Of this, 1.6 metric tons is plastic waste, mainly used plastic bottles. This is according to a GIZ report on plastic waste transport from the Nile River and its major tributaries into the marine environment.

Jeconious Musingwire, the southwestern region manager for the national environment watchdog, NEMA, estimates the number of plastic bottles from Mbarara city that drain into river Rwizi daily to be in “thousands.”

 “Some contain contaminated liquids which pollute the river’s water,” laments Musingwire.

According to the same report, Uganda’s tourism city of Fort Portal generates 28 metric tons of municipal solid waste per month; of this, 2.4 metric tons is plastic waste.

A large volume of plastic waste, primarily used soft drink bottles, generated from Fort Portal city drains into River Mpanga, a source of domestic water for over 60,000 dwellers of Fort Portal city and neighboring areas.

A used plastic bottle in a boat on River Nile in Jinja, Uganda.

Journalist Sunday Rogers, who has covered the Mpanga river pollution story for over a decade, estimates that “daily, 500-1000 pieces of plastic bottles find their way into River Mpanga.” And he recounts that the situation is worse during the rainy season.

According to the UN environment programme, “one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute” worldwide. Half of these are designed to be thrown away after a single use.

Away from Western Uganda into the central region, areas that fringe Lake Victoria and river Nile, such as Nakawa division, Central division, Bweyongerere, all in Kampala city; the Entebbe municipality, and  Jinja city, have a “relatively substantial plastics leakage risk” according to the GIZ report.

Although Mbarara, Fort Portal, and Kampala cities have official waste dumping sites: Kenkombe, Kiteere, and Kitezi, respectively, due to high population and the population’s poor waste management habits, plastic waste, just like other wastes, is discarded into the environment.

study by researchers at the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Makerere University suggests that urban areas surrounding Lakes Edward, George, Albert, and Kyoga combined produce almost as much plastic waste as those surrounding Lake Victoria, the leading polluted lake in the country. Most of these plastics end up flowing into nearby lakes.

Patrick Byamukama Byaruhanga, the Senior Fisheries Officer in the Directorate of Fisheries Resources of Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, says, “increasing population and urbanization, along Uganda’s lakes, is leading to increased “plastic pollution” on landing sites.

A fisher at Busowoko prepares a fishing net before fishing in River Nile. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Beyond Great lakes: Plastics flow up to Mediterranean sea

According to a study by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, 95 percent of the plastic waste transported by rivers into oceans and seas comes from ten rivers. These rivers include the Nile, which drains into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Mediterranean basin’s annual plastic waste input is estimated at 100,000 tons. Up to 50% comes from land-based sources, 30% from river channels, including the Nile, and 20% from maritime transportation.

River Nile, the longest river in the world, travels a distance of 6,695 kilometers from Lake Victoria in Uganda through South Sudan, Sudan, and Ethiopia to the Mediterranean Sea via Egypt. According to the Nile Basin water resources atlas, lakes Victoria, Kyoga, Edward, Albert, and Tana are the major natural lakes of the Nile.

The major worry is that once in the Nile, this plastic debris may flow into the Mediterranean Sea.   

Nile Tilapia fish just caught from Lake Kyoga being weighed at Zengebe landing site in Rwampanga town council. Photo by Fredrick-Mugira.

This is because Rivers are “direct conduits of trash into lakes and the oceans,” according to the UN environment programme, which argues that “rivers and lakes carry plastic waste from deep inland to the sea, making them major contributors to ocean pollution.”

It takes approximately three months for the waters near the town of Jinja, Uganda — the point where the Nile leaves Lake Victoria, to reach the Mediterranean Sea, according to Laban Musinguzi, a fisheries scientist at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) who is also the editor for freshwater biodiversity portal

The waterway must be free of flow alterations and obstructions for floating plastic debris to travel on this journey. But tiny particles may furtively sift through.

Callist Tindimugaya, Uganda’s commissioner for water resources planning and regulation in the ministry of water and environment, acknowledges that the plastic debris in Africa’s great lakes wash into the Nile and flows downstream. He, however, believes they may not easily reach the Mediterranean Sea.“We have several wetlands that will hold them,” he narrates.

According to the Nile Basin Initiative, there are about 17 major wetland systems in the Nile basin. These include South Sudan’s Sudd, the most extensive wetland in Africa and the second largest in the world, covering an area of 57,000 square kilometers. Others are the 542 square kilometer Lake Bisina Wetland System in Uganda and the Dinder National Park wetland system in Sudan, which covers an area of 10,846 square kilometers.

Such wetland systems trap and hold the plastic debris, causing more challenges, according to Dr. Tindimugaya.

“In the areas where we have plastics, we have much flooding because they block water,” he relates, further expressing worry that “we do not have to worry about plastics reaching the Mediterranean sea alone; by the time they reach South Sudan, what damage will they have caused even on the Ugandan side?”

What is more worrying is that microplastic deposit in riverbeds has long-term retention; they remain within riverbeds for up to seven years before moving to the seas and oceans, according to a study by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Birmingham in England.

Based on this evidence, the more time plastic debris lingers, the more effect it has on an ecosystem.

A fisher casts a fishing net in River Nile. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

What if nothing is done?

The answer is simple. Inaction over plastics pollution is catastrophic, and the consequences are severe in different ways.

A 2019 study published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology found that an average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic annually. Most of these particles were found in rivers, oceans, soil, and air.

“Individuals who meet their recommended water intake through only bottled sources may be ingesting an additional 90000 microplastics annually, compared to 4000 microplastics for those who consume only tap water,” warned the study.

According to the Nile Basin Initiative, the Nile is a lifeline for over 272 million people who live within its basin. Most depend on the Nile’s water and other resources, such as fish. 

Unfortunately, over 75% of fish sampled in a study on Evidence of Microplastic Contamination in Fish from the Nile River contained microplastics in their gastrointestinal tract. The highest number of microplastic was found in the Nile Tilapia.

2016 study on Lake Victoria’s southern shore found that “20% of each fish species” studied contained “confirmed microplastics within their gastrointestinal tracts.”

The study detailed the polymers recovered from the fish to include “polyethylene, polyurethane, polyester, polyethylene/polypropylene copolymer, and silicone rubber,” categorizing “the common use of such materials to include packaging, clothing, food and drink containers, insulation, and industrial applications.”

The impacts of humans ingesting microplastic are severe. Plastics contained “over 10,000 chemicals” linked to “increased cancer, infertility, decreased penis size” in humans, according to Bethanie Carney Almroth, associate professor and researcher at the University of Gothenburg. Bethanie spoke at the 2022 virtual training sessions on water and communications facilitated by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

Agreeing, Dr. Vianney Natugonza, a senior lecturer at Busitema University maritime Institute, narrates that fish often ingest plastic waste after confusing it for food. Subsequently, “fish may develop a false sense of satisfaction which reduces its actual food intake. Which again affects the growth and the survival,” further notes Natugonza, a fishery sciences researcher. He insists that the impact on fish ultimately affects the people and their livelihoods.

From fish eating the plastics, the food chain proceeds by people eating the fish. “So you feed on the fish, and the plastics get into your body,” says Ghaamid Abdulbasat Hatibu, a Tanzanian environmental scientist and ecohydrologist.

Hatibu, a National Geographic Explorer, states this directly affects human health because “plastics are made up of different compounds harmful to the human blood cells.”

 Besides marine organisms, several other terrestrial organisms, including cows, donkeys, and goats, ingest microplastics when drinking plastic-polluted water.

And as Hatibu narrates, “when you feed on the same animal, you’ll ingest plastics.”

He warns that the compounds in the plastics keep growing within the human body without the hosts noticing and, “after some time, it becomes primary and later on the secondary level of cancer.”

Plastic wastes on Zengebe landing site on Lake Kyoga

From villain to heroes: Simple solutions for stubborn problems

 “Preventing plastic waste discharge into any water system right from their source is the best way to stop plastic pollution from going downstream a river,” narrates Dr. Were.

At the Katunguru landing site, some fishers are innovatively using the red-hot poker tree, also known as Lucky Tree, botanically identified as Erythrina Abyssinica to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution.

“We cut, dry, and make pieces of any sizes we want. For it when it gets off the nets, it easily decays not like plastics which live forever,” narrates Taremwa.

At the Kahenero II landing site on Lake George, Musimenta Ramathan, the fishers’ association’s secretary, says they have put in place dustbins for easy gathering and management of plastic wastes.

At the Katunguru landing site, fishers are working with the local council authorities and Uganda Wildlife Authority officials to pick up and burn plastic bottles from a nearby incinerator. This plastic waste includes the plastic floats discarded by the fishers.

Sande William, 54, in charge of sanitation and hygiene at the Katunguru landing site, is one of the fishers who spend time picking plastics. He grew up at the site. His parents were fishers at the same landing site.

“We keep picking them to ensure they do not become a menace at the site,” Sande says. He calls on the government to help the fishers access sustainable floats for eco-friendly fishing.

There are various biodegradable fishing floats on the market, and Uganda’s government has encouraged fishers to use them. However, the fishers say they cannot afford them. But also, environmentalists have questioned bioplastics saying they emit methane on the landfill sites where they are dumped. Methane is a greenhouse gas. Bioplastics are made from crops such as wheat, maize, and sugarcane.

Used plastic bottles are recycled into plastic shelters for growing trees. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

The unsung Heroes: Are waste pickers the planet savers?

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 the Kasese district and Katunguru in the 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.

Ramathan Baryaruhanga, the project’s co-director, stands beside a statue of an elephant made of iron bars and wire mesh, filled with used plastic bottles at Katunguru primary school. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

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.

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.

A fisher at Lake George in Uganda with empty plastic bottles.

One day 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 off 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.

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.

Jerome Ramathan, the Katunguru Primary school’s management committee chairperson, 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.

Similar to this initiative, Samuel Kiiza, a business administration graduate, has turned to recycling plastic bottles in Uganda’s tourism city, Fort Portal.

He recycles plastic waste picked by waste collectors, mainly from River Mpanga, bars, roadside, and dustbins in the city.

“Plastic bottles continue to threaten our environment because leaders have not yet realized how waste can be managed properly,” narrates Kiiza. He recycles used plastic bottles of soft drinks into laundry baskets, garbage bins, flower pots, brooms, and pavers.

Kiiza makes ten laundry baskets daily and sells each at 15,000 shillings (4 USD). He has also embarked on a skills-transfer program training youths on how to recycle plastic bottles.

According to Jeconeous Musingwire, an environmental scientist with Uganda’s national environment watchdog-NEMA, the upsurge of single-use plastics worldwide has turned them into a “nuisance,” so 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.”

Solutions to the plastic water pollution problem need to focus on proper disposal and limiting the use of certain plastic items. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Nirere Sadrac, the founder of End Plastic Pollution Uganda, calls for recognition of the waste pickers, saying, “they have not been given the right attention, yet they are a solution to enabling our communities to deal with plastic waste.” He describes them as a perfect solution to stopping plastic materials from re-entering the economy.

He says waste pickers are being exploited by middlemen that buy plastic cheaply and sell them expensively to companies that reuse them. According to Nirere, soft drink companies buy plastic bottles for recycling at 1000 shillings a kilogram, yet middlemen pay waste pickers less than 300 shillings a kilogram.

The Nairobi Global Plastics Treaty recognizes the role played by waste pickers in the plastics economy.

According to Dr. Were, most solutions to the plastic water pollution problem must focus on proper disposal and limiting the use of certain plastic items.

Plastic water pollution is such a complex problem that needs urgent attention today. Individuals, policymakers, scientists, law enforcement, and manufacturers all have a role to play. Turning from villains to heroes is within everyone’s reach.

Water Journalists Africa

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in...

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