Plastic containers or bags can take hundreds of years to decompose. Their presence, however, taints the entire ecosystem. Experts and residents around Lake Victoria call for action, including new laws to protect Africa’s largest freshwater lake and its local communities.
Here, people from all walks of life, mostly women and young men, come to fish, make canoes, mend fishing nets, sell and prepare fish, cook and do other casual work. Their livelihood is threatened by dumped plastic waste.
Empty water plastic bottles, empty juice containers, polythene bags, plastic cups, plates, and, more recently, face masks are all discarded. Most of the waste is then blown by the wind or carried by running water into the lake, inspiring some to develop creative solutions.
“Plastic waste collected in the lake such as sandals, plastic bags, and bottles can be used to make products such as decorative, chairs, boats, and a pavilion that can be used for restaurant services,” says Editrith Lukungu, the Executive Director of a private environmental conservation organisation in Tanzania.
A problem that needs to be addressed now, not tomorrow.”
The organisation built a tent-like pavilion in Kamanga, Mwanza, from waste dumped in Lake Victoria. It also provides product development training to groups of women and youth in communities living along the shores of the lake.
Editrith acknowledges that dumping waste into the lake proliferates due to increased access to plastics, packaging, or shopping bags. Environmentalists rejoiced when authorities banned the use of plastic bags in Tanzania. It was an approach that has also been adopted in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda. But sadly, the new measures introduced in 2019 have not saved the lake from excessive plastic pollution.
Leticia Mahenyeka, a resident of Chifunfu village on the shores of Lake Victoria, laments that plastics are everywhere. Not knowing how to face the crisis, she says authorities must change direction to protect the lake and the community. “This is a problem and needs to be addressed now, not tomorrow, not later,” she says. “Above all, it affects the water we drink.”
Figures show that Lake Victoria Basin is among the areas with the highest growth rates globally at 3.5 percent each year. In 2017, it was home to about 40 million people with an average population density of 250 people per square kilometre. Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of communities living in the lake’s basin lack a common litter bin. Plastic recycling plants are also limited in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – the five Lake Victoria Basin countries.
Initially, there were debates over a growing trend of restricting and banning plastic bag use. Elion Swai, an Industrial expert in Arusha, Tanzania, says an outright prohibition to the production, importation, sale and use of all single-use plastic bags in the country is an essential step towards shifting away from a linear economy in which resources are often used once and then discarded. But he cautions that both state and non-state actors must work together to raise environmental consciousness among consumers.
“Plastic bag bans are problematic as they are not the largest source of plastic pollution,” he says. “We have to consider any other sources of plastic waste and limit manufacturing or usage.”
Reports have also suggested that plastic bag restrictions reduce their use but sometimes lead to environmental harm if customers switch to other materials with larger resource footprints.
Paper bags, for instance, can require 400 percent more energy to make, not to mention the harvesting of trees and the use of harmful chemicals in production. Growing cotton “requires land, huge quantities of water, chemical fertilisers and pesticides”, says Swai.
Biodegradable bags, perhaps surprisingly, could be “the worst option” in terms of their impact on climate, harm to soil, water pollution, and toxic emissions.
Eco Ways Uganda announced it had found a novel way to reduce plastic waste by collecting discarded bags and bottles and upcycling them into new products, such as tables and fence poles.
Like Editrith, Eco Ways is an emerging environmental entrepreneur setting up collection points in the area. Observers argue that such approaches should be intensified to help shrink the number of ugly landfill spots on the landscape which teem with plastic waste.
Nearly 18 months after the Flipflopi made its first historical journey from Lamu, Kenya, to Zanzibar, Tanzania, the world’s first percent recycled plastic sailing boat (dhow) made another historic voyage, this time on Lake Victoria.
Lake Victoria is under tremendous pressure.”
Over four weeks in early 2021, the Flipflopi sailed around Lake Victoria, highlighting the impact of pollution on this vital ecosystem and engaging governments, business leaders, community leaders, conservationists, and students on viable solutions for the pollution menace.
“There is clear evidence that the ecology of Lake Victoria is under tremendous pressure. The lake plays a key role in facilitating community life in the East African region. I call on the governments of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to strengthen their cooperation to enhance the improvement of this important raw material. UNEP and its partners are ready to provide the necessary support to achieve this,” says Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, UNEP Director and Representative for the African Region.
In July, Kenya Coast Guard Service (KCGS) described the dumping of plastic waste in Lake Victoria as alarming. Meanwhile, experts have suggested that Kenya and Tanzania set up plants or nets on all the major drainage channels to trap litter before it reaches the lake. In San Francisco, California, authorities have used such traps to prevent plastic waste from reaching the sea.