In many ways, my time in Tanzania has challenged me to face things about myself and the way I live that make me uncomfortable.

Five months ago, I arrived in Tanzania to work as a fisheries biologist and ecologist intern for six months. This was the first time in my life I have worked and lived abroad, and although I’ve done field work in remote parts of Canada, it was never for such a long length of time. In the time that I’ve been here, I can say I’ve found a place in my new home and created something that feels close to familiarity. But even still, there are things for me that remain unsettled. In many ways, my time in Tanzania has challenged me to face things about myself and the way I live that make me uncomfortable.

As someone who always considered myself to be environmentally conscious, it was a real shock to me when I arrived in Tanzania to see beaches strewn with plastic bags, people burning or burying garbage and rivers overflowing with waste. Coming from a place that has afforded me the luxury of forgetting about my garbage and recycling after it reaches the curbside, it hit me pretty hard when I felt the full weight of responsibility for my own waste. It has been a very valuable experience to be made so uncomfortable and aware all at once. It has pushed me to search for answers and solutions here and back home.

Untangling a crab that became stuck in the remnants of a plastic bag

Tanzania, like many places in the world today, is facing the ever-growing issue of waste management, particularly highly urbanized areas. I am living in Dar es Salaam, which is the largest city in Tanzania and the economic hub of the country. People from all over the country flock to Dar es Salaam looking for opportunities, which has lead to a rapid population increase from 840,000 in 1978 to approximately 4.36 million people as of 2012 (NBS, 2013). Unfortunately, the city infrastructure has not expanded to accommodate the growth and many people are living in poorly constructed, unplanned settlements with little to no road access. The majority of people working in Dar es Salaam are doing so in an informal sector – a shadow economy – which is difficult to regulate or tax (Medina and Schneider, 2017).

Consequently, providing access to solid waste collection and/or wastewater treatment is challenging. Of the ~ 4,200 tonnes of solid waste produced in Dar es Salaam per day, roughly 40% is disposed of through formal mechanisms (Breeze, 2012).  It is mostly small enterprises and individuals that offer solid waste collection services, which is paid for by private citizens. These companies face a high risk of bankruptcy due to lack of payment from clients and inadequate access to disposal sites (Palfreman, 2014). Although Dar es Salaam is investing in new infrastructure and trying to increase public access to waste disposal services, the majority of citizens are managing waste on their own because of logistic or financial limitations. Waste that is not disposed of through formal collection is managed by individuals and households through dumping, burning, burying or reuse (mostly through composting of organic waste).

Busy at work collecting sediment samples at one of the sites in Mafia Island

During my internship, I became involved with a collaborative research project looking to characterize the presence and distribution of microplastics in aquatic and marine environments in Tanzania and Kenya. Across the globe, all that plastic and garbage that isn’t making it into the landfill is often travelling from the rivers into our oceans. Sitting across from the park warden for the marine park on Mafia Island, I watched him lean back in his chair as he explained the reality of preserving and protecting the sensitive habitats on the island. The truth is, the cleanliness of the beaches has more to do with the monsoon seasons than the diligence of the island residents. Much of the garbage washing up on the shorelines comes from other countries. Even if Tanzania were to adopt hardline environmental policies that target waste reduction, it would certainly be productive but would not eliminate the problem.

Visiting the beaches myself, I picked up products with labels in different languages and wondered the age and origin of some of these plastics. Most of them were now heavily weathered and bleached by the sun. We were there to collect sediment samples on different parts of Mafia island, one of several sites across the coast of Tanzania and Kenya. Spooning the top surface of sand carefully for sample collection, I could see the tiny plastic particles in every spoonful. A few weeks later, we processed samples at the university of Dodoma and I saw a short-list of beaches across the country with the highest plastic content. Even more alarming was the plastic found in the tissue of two species of bivalves that we collected. These species are found in the sands in low tide and are collected and eaten by local people. We were interested to see if these crustaceans were consuming plastic, something that has been observed in similar species in other parts of the world (Moos et al., 2012). It’s one thing to hear about plastic rising through the trophic levels, but looking down the microscope at the inconspicuous red and blue strands was unsettling.

After dissolving and filtering the tissue of a bivalve sample, we used a microscope to look for evidence of plastic material

Through these experiences, it has become increasingly apparent to me that addressing ocean plastic pollution requires a coordinated global effort to see any real progress. Although there are frequent international dialogues focused on finding solutions to this growing problem, some of the stickier questions concerning accountability and responsibility remain unanswered. Resistance from the plastics industry, which has accrued both economic and political power over the last decades, has made it challenging to answer these questions and establish an effective international strategy to mitigate plastic pollution (Clapp, 2012; Dauvergne, 2018). Consequently, ocean governance remains largely fragmented across jurisdictions, unevenly enforced and lacking policy coordination across states (Dauvergne, 2018). The current governance landscape has allowed businesses to skirt responsibility for their role in plastic waste pollution through loopholes in regulations and given wealthy countries the ability to displace their waste and the accompanying environmental consequences to other countries with weaker environmental legislation or inadequate enforcement.

Preparing bivalve samples in the laboratory at the University of Dodoma

The world is becoming increasingly globalised, and it’s no longer an option to ignore the consequences of global waste and plastic pollution. Plastic might not be in our streets, but it will end up on our plate if changes aren’t made. Living in Dar es Salaam was a wake up call for me. Here, the average citizen produces roughly 340 kg of waste per capita per year (Breeze, 2012). Although affluence is an important factor affecting waste production (Senzige et al., 2014), it doesn’t show the whole picture. Walking through the streets of Dar, shops display used goods which have been repaired and polished for resale, there is a ‘fundi’ (craftsperson) on every corner to fix any object you can think of, and people have found innovative ways to repurpose old objects. There are still a number of challenges facing Dar es Salaam in their effort to manage waste, but there is hope too.

The beaches of Bagamoyo on a late afternoon as boats arrive to sell their catch on the market nearby

The streets in many Canadian cities are comparatively cleaner than those in Dar es Salaam, and they are doing a very good job of collecting waste and recycling, but this is just an illusion of success. Even with high quality infrastructure and  waste management services, in many parts of Canada, the garbage issue is not improving (Conference Board of Canada, 2018). The average Canadian produces 720 kg of waste per year, and Canada is considered one of the most wasteful countries in the developed world (Conference Board of Canada, 2018; Wilkins, 2017). By emphasizing individual responsibility for waste diversion, the onus has been effectively shifted away from corporate waste producers (Dauvergne and Lister, 2012). Recycling is good, but won’t solve the escalating plastic problem. A plastic bottle has a long, complicated, and resource intensive journey ahead of itself before it achieves a second life. Even then, our recycled goods will likely will not be reincarnated as many times as our good consciences would have us believe and will produce toxic byproducts in the process (which will be felt most strongly in those countries that manage recycled waste).

There is no silver bullet solutions, and there shouldn’t be. As a society, we need to grow and move away from the habits that have brought us to this point in the first place.  It is highly unlikely that we will discover a new technology or magic bacteria that will turn back the clock on our waste problem and save us from ourselves. Putting too much hope into these efforts can provide a false sense of security that science will save us, and even worse, can produce more waste as technologies improve. The solutions for managing waste, and plastic in particular, are hardly sensational and will be mostly uncomfortable. Rather than trying to replace disposable cups with more ‘eco-friendly’ material, we really need to focus on waste reduction. This process will challenge nations that have become overly accustomed to the consumption and disposal of goods to re-evaluate their relationships with objects. We need to see legislation with stricter regulations for corporate polluters, investment in waste management infrastructure in developing countries, research funds for environmental plastics pollution, waste reduction among private citizens, and most importantly, an international plastics treaty to create binding targets and timelines to tackle plastic pollution. By increasing oversight and accountability through legislation, we can reduce the ability of wealthy countries and consumers to deflect responsibility for their plastic waste and incentivize the transition towards circular economies which minimize waste by planning in advance how materials will pass through their life-cycle.

The sun sets on the port of Mafia Island

Looking out at the ocean, I can see birds running across the shore chasing the waves as they roll down the sand. The tide is going out and the sun is setting. We are at a turning point in human history. From this point onward, we have difficult decisions to make as individuals, communities and nations if we want to mitigate the impact we are having on this planet. If we want a better future, we can have it. The only catch is, it is an active choice that requires a daily commitment and struggle. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Charla Patterson


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