Mindelo, Cape Verde – When the 35 teachers of the Escola de Alto Peixinho high school on the island of Santo Antão gathered there in early March, they were there for a bit of role reversal. They had come to learn, not to teach – and their teacher, Leila Teixeira was there to shock them.
“When they see a seabird, a seabird, wrapped in a net, it’s hard for them to see it and know that we are a big part of this problem,” said Teixeira, coordinator of the marine pollution department. in Cape Town. The Verdian association Biosfera, which co-organized the workshop on plastic pollution with the Lisbon Oceanarium.
And it’s not just the birds that are in trouble: baby sea turtles, after hatching, can get tangled in fishing nets that wash up on the shore. Fish in the waters of Cape Verde are full of microplastics.
But Teixeira wasn’t trying to dampen tempers – rather, she was trying to inspire action. The workshop was dedicated to ways to combat the mountains of debris washing up on the shores of this archipelago off the coast of West Africa.
In Cape Verde, the trend towards massive adoption of single-use plastics is relatively recent. As the economy has grown – with GDP nearly quadrupling since 2000 to $1.98 billion before the pandemic – the use of disposable goods and single-use plastics has also increased. , activists said.
“To buy disposables is a matter of status,” Teixeira said. “They can throw a party and they don’t have to use the reusable plates and the reusable forks and knives.”
But the waste collected by Cape Verdean environmentalists shows the island chain’s entanglement with the rest of the world’s action – or inaction – on plastic pollution. Plastic bottles from Bangladesh, octopus traps from Senegal and Mauritania and nylon fishing nets discarded or lost by fishermen around the world regularly wash up on these islands, despite their location hundreds of miles from the shore. nearest landmass.
The waste is transported there by the powerful ocean current of the Canary Islands.
Later this year, Biosfera plans to open its first recycling center, the latest of a handful that opened on the islands last year. Before that, there was no way to recycle, and to this day, recycling remains in the hands of a few non-profit organizations.
Work is essential: Cape Verde does a good job of keeping its tourist-frequented beaches clean – the sector accounts for 24% of GDP and 10% of formal employment.
But other beaches little frequented by humans but essential for the islands’ marine ecosystems remain the final destination for litter from around the world.
“You clean, and clean, and then there are fishing nets coming in, there is plastic coming in,” said Helena Moscoso, co-founder of SIMILI, a Mindelo-based company that collects fishing nets washed up on the island of São Vincente and hires Cape Verdean women to sew them into bags and wallets. “It’s way beyond our sphere and beyond what we can do.”
The company organizes beach cleanups in tandem with Biosfera, though in some cases, Teixeira said, there’s so much litter that even a month-long cleanup with dozens of volunteers can barely clean the entire length of the beach. a four kilometer route. beach.
After the photos of the birds, “they [the teachers] were really interested in being part of the solution,” Teixeira said.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the solutions will have to come from more than just the islanders, as Cape Verde takes care of the rest of the world’s waste. “It’s just a mitigation job,” Teixeria said of the beach cleanup. “We’re just trying to protect the beach and the coastal ecosystems.”
Hope for global collaboration
There is hope that global cooperation will soon become a reality. In March, the United Nations Environment Assembly embarked on an ambitious 175-nation treaty to tackle plastic pollution, described as an “epidemic” by the assembly’s speaker and Norwegian climate minister and of the Environment, Espen Barth Eide.
A draft legally-binding agreement that would tackle the 300 tonnes of plastic pollution produced every year – 11 million tonnes of which flow into the world’s oceans – is scheduled for 2024.
“We have these big brands [producing single-use plastic products] and they are dispersed and present in different geographical boundaries,” said Erastus Ooko, Plastics Engagement Manager for Greenpeace Africa, in a recent Twitter space organized around the UN treaty. “And banning them in one country isn’t very effective because they can just produce in another country.”
In recent years, international action around plastics has been anything but cooperative – rich countries have shipped plastic waste for recycling and treatment in poor countries, knowingly much of it ends up in landfills or burned.
Sometimes waste was even illegally shipped overseas, to be dumped in countries with lower environmental standards.
Recipient countries, from China to Senegal, have increasingly retaliated by banning plastic waste imports as they try to build recycling capacity to handle their growing domestic supply. International shipping companies are increasingly banning the transport of plastic waste on their ships.
“The great thing about the [UN] no one expected us to get to this point so soon,” said Niven Reddy, South Africa-based regional coordinator for Break Free From Plastics, a global campaign dedicated to tackling plastic pollution. “The mandate is to look through [plastic waste’s] the whole life cycle, which is very important, because before that it was marine litter… now it opens up opportunities to look at capping [plastic] production, which is very important.
Back to the future
In the town of Mindelo, a major shipping hub and tourist hotspot across a bright blue bay from the Santo Antão mountains, where Teixeira held her studio, Moscoso is worried. Down the street from his office, a new cruise port is slated for construction and the rubbish that tourists and ships might bring with them worries him.
“Tourism is growing…[and] we don’t have the ability to [recycling]”, she says.
“We have to go back to how it was before and not have all these big supermarkets [where] it’s easy to find things, and everything is plastic, plastic, plastic,” added Debora Roberto, co-founder of SIMILI. “We have to go back and go back to when we used to buy only what we need.”
For now, however, nonprofits and businesses in Cape Verde dedicated to ending plastic pollution are focusing on what they can, finding hope in even the most gruesome of situations. .
During SIMILI beach cleanups, there are often too many green and brown fishing nets to count. But sometimes a speck of yellow, red or purple appears amidst the tangled masses – a rare, brightly colored streak, the perfect way to spice up one of SIMILI’s bags.
“All of that is hard to find,” Moscoso said, laughing at the absurdity of finding joy in another trash net.
Like Roberto, Teixeira stays motivated by imagining a future with less plastics and often tells people “we have to think like our grandparents” because “it is possible to live with less waste than the way we do now”.
“It can’t just be in Cape Verde,” she said. “It has to be global.”