The revolution against plastics
In the first three months of 2023, Chile has been engulfed in a series of wild fires, Brazil ravaged by deadly floods and mudslides, Malawi devastated by what is now hailed as the longest-lived cyclone in the southern hemisphere-accounting for more than 200 deaths, while the drought situation continues to plague the horn of Africa. With such examples, it is undeniable that environmental protection has steadily risen to be the most important global conversation in the second decade of the 21st Century. Even the skeptics are now coming around to the staggering implications of climate change, increasingly taking the shape of local manifestations.
Efforts at both the international and domestic fronts are aimed at sensitizing processes to the grim realities of a world on the verge of collapse. These efforts have permeated every sector of the global economy, providing a platform for humans to participate actively and creatively in saving their habitat. From green bonds to green crimes, traditional concepts are now getting clothed with an environmental awareness and attracting global partnerships and cooperation.
Within the environmental protection discourse, the issue of plastics pollution is gaining traction. The low cost, lightweight, durable, impermeable, and hardy characteristics of plastics have integrated their use into daily life for the last 50 years. These desirable characteristics ironically present the greatest challenges to their degradability, with ten million tons of plastic waste ending up in the world’s oceans every year. Nearly 70% of the plastic waste is comprised of single-use plastic packaging. Global efforts to manage the increasing plastics pollution are taking shape, with varying levels of commitment. Interestingly, the Global South has surpassed its industrialized counterparts in its commitment to stringent plastic action, with Kenya being a notable trend setter in this regard. Strathmore University’s 2023 theme on sustainability, and its embodiment in the obliteration of plastic food and water containers from the school cafeteria in favour of biodegradable and better looking food containers joins these efforts.
It is within this space that Dr. Cressida Bowyer, a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Science and Health and the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Portsmouth, and Deputy Lead for the University’s Revolution Plastics initiative, is charting an interesting research path. A biological scientist by training and having previously worked in the arts, the primary purpose of her research is to address global problems such as air quality and plastic pollution, using transdisciplinary and participatory methodologies.
Her presentation focused on the Sustainable Transitions to End Plastic Pollution (STEPP project). The uniqueness of her research, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, is two-fold: First, it recognizes the central role played by communities in addressing their own unique challenges relating to plastics pollution and secondly, incorporates creative methods such as music, digital storytelling, puppetry and visual arts, to engage these communities in finding solutions to global issues. The project has a number of partners from the global north and global south, including: University of Portsmouth, Strathmore University-Centre for Research in Education, Ministry of Health-Republic of Kenya, UN Habitat, Shahjalal University, FlipFlop project, Mukuru Youth Initiative and Amal Foundation. Her lecture ‘Addressing Plastics Pollution through Transdisciplinary and Participatory Methodologies’ delivered on 08th March 2023 was punctuated by songs developed by Kenyan artists in Mukuru slum sensitizing residents on the need to reuse and recycle plastics success stories in the use of re-used flip flops and plastic waste in Lamu towards the creation of dhows; and artistic work in the form of a plastic monster made from plastic waste to create awareness on the magnitude of the pollution problem and spur various conversations around non-pollution. During the presentation, Dr. Alfred Kitawi gave a brief overview of the research Strathmore University conducted on the state of plastics education within the basic education sector, and further measures that need to be adopted to manage plastics pollution through education. The numerous insightful questions and comments from the audience indicated that one of the most important lessons had been relayed: that individual and communal efforts play a central role in tackling the global problem of plastics pollution.
Several opportunities for intervarsity collaboration in ending plastics pollution were explored, including: publication in the upcoming Cambridge Prisms: Plastics, a publication devoted to finding solutions to plastics pollution; joint research; research funding and possible exchange programmes on the strength of the MOU between Strathmore University and the University of Portsmouth(UK).
This article was written by Sussie Mutahi and Maureen Achieng.
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