Plastic pollution is a pressing environmental problem worldwide. Every year, around eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans.

Most of the 17 West African countries have problems dealing with plastic waste. Eight of them are among the top 20 with the least effective plastic waste disposal practices – an increase from five in 2015. This has worsened marine pollution and affected activities in the region.

Coastal provinces generate about 56% of West Africa’s GDP and a third of the population lives there.

In 2018, West African states launched the West Africa Coastal Area Management Program to protect and restore the environmental, social and economic assets of coastal areas. This will be achieved by combating coastal erosion, flooding and pollution. Last year it received $246 million in additional funding from the World Bank. This brings the total funding for the project by the World Bank to $492 million.

We have been researching development economics for many years, particularly the interface between the use of natural resources and the development of countries. We have also been involved in research into plastic pollution as part of the University of Portsmouth’s Center for Blue Governance’s interdisciplinary Revolution Plastics initiative.

Our findings on plastic pollution could help West African countries spend World Bank money effectively.

We recommend that states first quantify the amount, type and origin of plastics dumped in coastal areas. Then they need to focus on reducing plastics at the source and promoting reuse and recycling. You can draw on globally successful case studies that can be adapted to local contexts.

Public awareness campaigns can help curb plastic pollution on the coasts of West Africa. John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Healthy oceans and a circular economy

The West Africa Coastal Area Management Program has initiated studies to assess the environmental and economic impacts of plastic pollution in the region. These studies also aim to explore the benefits of moving to a circular economy: an economic system that reuses or regenerates materials or products in a sustainable way.

The program assumes that a circular economy will create new economic opportunities through markets for the reuse of products and materials. Instead of throwing away products, they can be reintroduced into the economy. This may lead to a demand for services and technologies related to their collection and processing.

To achieve its goals, the program can benefit from research on sustainable plastics management from other regions.

Research partnership

The Center for Blue Governance has expertise in the areas of blue economy, marine ecosystem management, climate change and circular economy. It has extensively investigated plastic pollution in Portsmouth, a port city in the United Kingdom, and beyond. We have found that sustainable plastic management can be achieved in different ways. These strategies could be relevant for initiatives in West Africa. They include:

Inclusive partnerships: By collaborating with companies, activists and citizens through the Revolution Plastics initiative, we use research to develop environmentally friendly fabrics and combat microplastic pollution.

Awareness campaigns through art: Community awareness about the harmful effects of plastic pollution is necessary. As part of the Masibambisane Project in South Africa, we explored street art, theater and song to raise awareness about plastic pollution.

The project achieved significant results in KwaMhlanga in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. It was shown that raising awareness through art can inspire people to change their behavior. These communities now have a deeper understanding of the urgent need to address plastic pollution.

In addition, the introduction of sorting facilities close to home increased recycling rates and promoted sustainable habits. The West African program can integrate these findings into the planned e-book. This is a way to share information about best practices and promote action in communities.

Reuse and recycling projects: Through our inDIGO-EU and Microseap projects, we have reduced plastic waste by promoting recycling and reuse. For example, the INdIGO project has developed biodegradable fishing gear that reduces the environmental impact of marine fishing in the United Kingdom and France. Based on this project, the West Africa Coastal Area Management Program can develop a sustainable alternative to the equipment used in small-scale fisheries in the region.

From diagnosis to action

Our research suggests that to make the best use of the World Bank Fund, the West Africa Coastal Area Management Program could consider the following action plans:

Collect data on plastic pollution: Start with a regional study to quantify the amount, type and origin of plastics dumped in coastal areas. This could include using technologies such as drones, sensors and remote sensing to map pollution hotpots. Perception surveys could also help understand behaviors and attitudes related to plastic pollution. The aim is to establish precise indicators and predictive models that can measure how well future interventions work.

Plan for a transition to a circular economy: The plan should focus on source reduction, reuse, recycling and material recovery. A committee consisting of government stakeholders, private companies and local communities could oversee implementation.

Design community awareness and education programs: These campaigns should instill a sense of environmental responsibility and give people tools to actively participate in reducing plastic pollution. Involving opinion leaders could increase their impact.

Develop ways to use plastic waste: Value chains for sorting, recycling and recycling require infrastructure, such as modern sorting centers. In addition, advanced recycling technologies and market mechanisms for recycled materials are required. Partnerships could be formed with local companies to produce products from recycled plastics, such as building materials or textiles.

By investing in these target areas, it is possible to create a sustainable system that provides economic and social opportunities to local communities.

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