Zanzibar’s plastic pollution heralds trouble in paradise

Plastic waste and debris washes up on Paje beach in Zanzibar. Plastic pollution on the island is killing sea turtles and damaging the environment.Handout

Green sea turtles are among the largest sea turtles in the world. But their enormous bodies, protected by olive-brown shells of hard keratin, are helpless when their digestive systems become entangled with plastic from the heaps of rubbish on Zanzibar’s beaches.

“The plastic destroys the internal organs, while the bags prevent the turtles from feeding,” said Mussa William, turtle nurse at Mnarani Marine Turtles Conservation Pond, at the northern tip of the archipelago’s main island.

The center helps protect turtle nests from poachers and educates fishermen about marine pollution. Its large pool serves as an oasis where reptiles are incubated, fed and then released once a year, increasing the chances of survival for this critically endangered species.

Zanzibar’s colorful coral reefs, dazzling coastline of sandy beaches and historic Stone Town have become global symbols of this vacationer’s paradise. The islands are Tanzania’s main tourist destination, attracting around half a million people each year, mostly from Europe and North America.

But despite its beautiful image, Zanzibar has suffered the severe effects of poor waste management and – like many places in the monsoon zone – its people have struggled with this ever-growing problem. During the rainy season, huge amounts of plastic waste wash up on its shores, often from the illegal dumpsites that have sprung up all over the island. Some of the waste ends up in the ocean, harming wildlife.

“It’s a sad time when we can’t operate [on the turtles]said Mr. William. “That’s why we need better facilities, and we’re also looking for vets.”

To save the turtles, his team cleans up the beaches, but it’s a Herculean task. Plastic pollution is a contributing factor to the mass extinction currently taking place around the world, but due to limited budgets and a lack of know-how, countries in the global South have struggled to recycle waste.

The data shows that in Zanzibar, microplastics were found in 94% of sea surface samples and plastic was found in 64.76% of coastal quadrants, putting the areas at the forefront of the environmental fight.

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The Zanzibar Archipelago contains diverse ecosystems including coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, beaches, estuaries, rocky shores and coastal forests. But due to the accumulation of poorly managed waste, large amounts of plastic are entering the marine habitat, threatening these ecosystems.

Zanzibar is heavily dependent on tourism, which provides up to 72,000 jobs and 27% of GDP. That’s why many conservationists believe the government could do more to manage the waste. Authorities banned plastic bags as early as 2008, to much applause, but the islands still lack proper bins along the coasts. And once a year, monsoon rains turn the beaches into a sprawling landfill.

Local communities and expatriate residents have teamed up to try to save the island’s environment. Sjani Muggenburg, originally from South Africa, fell in love with hatchling turtles two decades ago and has called Zanzibar home ever since. Overwhelmed by the low survival rate of turtles, she decided to do something to get rid of marine pollution.

“It was devastating to me that there was only one type of plastic that I could recycle on a limited budget,” she said. “It was very depressing, because one bottle even contains four types of plastic. But I didn’t give up.”

Today, Ms Muggenburg regularly organizes workshops on the need to reduce plastic waste and has connected with many Zanzibarans in the process. “People are shocked to learn of the impact of pollution,” she said.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 9% of plastic waste is recycled worldwide. Another 19% are incinerated, 50% end up in landfills and 22% escape waste management systems and end up in uncontrolled landfills.

In March, 175 countries agreed to a treaty to stop plastic pollution.

But recycling is only a small part of the solution, Ms Muggenburg said. “We should all rethink our purchases, then reduce and reuse as much as possible.”

The world is facing booming plastic consumption, which has quadrupled over the past 30 years, driven by the growth of emerging markets.

Ms Muggenburg works with eight local organizations that collect plastic waste for recycling, mostly employing women with no other source of income.

“It’s a dirty job, [but] we want women to be informal waste collectors, and we empower them by providing them with buckets, brushes and knives,” she said.

His company, Recycle at Ozti, makes products from plastic waste and recently received a grant from the German embassy, ​​but much more funding is needed, she said.

Without change, by 2050 all sea creatures could contain plastic particles, she said.

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Bryce K. Locke