By Emily DiFrisco
The scourge of plastic pollution has far-reaching environmental and animal and human health consequences all over the world, and countries in Africa are no exception. Plastic trash impacts African communities on multiple levels: when discarded plastic bags fill with rainwater, they attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Dumped in rivers and lakes, plastic bags choke, strange, and kill marine life. Plastic trash blocks storm drains and can cause flooding—a devastating 2015 flood in Ghana caused by plastic-blocked drains killed 150 people.
The harmful effects of plastics continue as they photodegrade, or break into tiny pieces. Like pebbles on a beach, microplastics are nearly impossible to “clean up” and pose toxicity risks to the global food chain.
The good news? Individual countries in Africa have recently had success in the fight against plastic pollution. In the next few months, Kenya’s ban on single-use plastic bags will take effect, following Rwanda, which outlawed them in 2008. Eight other countries: Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mauritania, and Malawi each have also announced bans.
While celebrating the successful plastic bag bans, PPC member Bahati Mayoma, a scientist located in Tanzania, says more awareness, research, and bans on single-use plastic are critically needed in countries across Africa. Mayoma worked on the first study to report the presence of microplastics in Africa’s Great Lakes, and he says those lakes are under threat.
“Microplastic contamination in the African Great Lakes is currently unreported, and compared to other regions of the world little is known about the occurrence of microplastics in African waters and their fauna,” writes Mayoma in the 2015 study. Mayoma and his colleagues conducted their research in the Mwanza region of Tanzania, on the southern shore of Lake Victoria.
After purchasing two species of fish from a local auction (20 Nile perch and 20 Nile tilapia), the researchers dissected the fish and examined their gastrointestinal tracts under microscope. The results were clear: microplastics were present in 20 percent of both fish species.
The results of the study are troubling for both the local economy and animal and human health. Experts at the local fisheries research institute were astounded by the presence of microplastics in the fish and the conclusion that they could travel up the food chain.
“These are important fish for the local economy, sold locally and internationally and even served in European markets for upscale restaurants,” Mayoma says of the far-reaching implications.
Also concerning to Mayoma is how microplastics may travel and harm ecosystems. He sees plastic pollution washing ashore on Tanzania Island, a breeding site for sea turtles. “People need to understand where the plastic is washing up,” he says of the need for more research.
For now, Mayoma celebrates the recent successes. “In Tanzania, the government is taking some steps to ban single-use plastic items. The government recently stopped people from selling all alcohol packed in plastic,” explains Mayoma, who says this measure is already cutting down on plastic pollution. “I'm in talks with local coastal conservation groups discussing about the campaign of collecting plastic washing on shore, and I see good progress.”
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