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Reusing, Recycling to Stop Plastic Pollution in Lake Victoria

By Sharon Atieno

  • Up to 503,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated by Kenya; only 7% recycled.
  • A study revealed the presence of most microplastics in the vicinity of fish landing and recreational beaches
  • The county government, local CBOs and youth groups are carrying out clean-up activities in Dunga Beach, Kisumu Kenya

Dunga beach is a hive of activities- from fishmongers calling on customers, fishermen putting away or preparing their fishing gears for the next fishing expedition, hoteliers playing loud competing music to attract customers, and boat operators and tour guides scrambling for visitors to take on a cruise on the beach. 

At the centre of all these activities, lies Lake Victoria- the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. As the wind blows, the murky waters from the lake hit the fleet of boats and the lush green and brown vegetation bordering the shoreline. A group of white Hadada Ibis birds occasionally parade themselves around the shore. Also, noticeable is small pieces of plastics and other litter which have strategically decorated the shoreline.

Microplastics in fish

While research conducted in  2015 on the lake’s Nile perch and Nile tilapia found microplastics -plastics less than 5mm- in 20% of fish tested, a 2019 study revealed the presence of most microplastics in the vicinity of fish landing and recreational beaches within the urban or semi-urban setting and only in fish landing beaches within a rural community setting.

Dunga village, located within Nyalenda estate, is one of the villages bordering Lake Victoria on the Kenyan side. The Dunga beach wetland on the shores of the lake covers an area of 500 hectares. The main economic activity in the area is fishing and fish mongering, although tourism has also increased.

Jacob Oluoch Ong’ayo, 67, a resident of Dunga village acknowledges that plastic pollution is a problem in the lake region. He observes that at the point where River Wigwa deposits into the lake, there is usually a lot of solid waste including plastics like bottles and diapers.

According to Tom Togo, County Director of Environment, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), they have found various plastic wastes strewn across the shores of the lake during  the three clean-up activities that they have undertaken this year. Diapers alone, he notes, filled seven gunny bags in the last clean-up.

“People are irresponsible with disposing of their waste. The lake is fast becoming a disposal area,” he said.

Togo notes that the porous borders are also to blame, as plastic usually finds its way into the county through them.

He says that though there is no data to quantify the amount of plastic in the lake, plastic pollution has gone down since the ban imposed on single-use plastic became effective. However, plastic bottles still form a considerable portion of plastics in the lake.

In 2017, Kenya imposed a ban on the production, sale and use of plastic bags, which if breached could attract up to four years in prison or a USD 40,000 fine. Before the ban, supermarkets alone were handing out 100 million bags on a monthly basis.

According to Kenya National Guidance for plastic pollution hotspotting and shaping action report, Kenya generates 503,000 tonnes of plastic waste and only 7% is recycled. Of the 465,000 tons of mismanaged waste, 37,000 tonnes leak to the oceans and waterways.

Patrick Wanguche, Assistant researcher, Socio-economic department, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute (KMFRI)- Kisumu notes that the trends in plastic waste are very alarming, with plastic bottles being among the most discarded.

From their weekly clean-up activities, he observes that in a stretch of 100m, they can collect around 500 plastic bottles compared to 100 glass bottles.

Wanguche notes that the fish and other organisms confuse the plastics with food and end up consuming them, leading to indigestion and often resulting in death. He explains that when plastics disintegrate they become microplastics which organisms can consume.

Birds on the shores of Lake Victoria- Sharon Atieno

Continuing, he adds that fish often become entangled in ghost ropes and nets, which impedes their movement and ability to acquire food, without which, they die. Additionally, the plastic containers cause suffocation when fish and other organisms are trapped inside.

Richard Ojijo, Friends of Dunga Self Support Group, an environmental community based organization (CBO) agrees with this explanation that monofilament, which is used as a fishing gear, breaks away from the net and traps both fish and small reptiles resulting in death.

“When fish come to the wetlands to breed because the wetlands are the maternal wing for fish, the plastics block them and they get inside the plastic and die,” he adds.

A county environment officer mentions that some plastics contain oil. When they reach the river mouths and wetlands, the oil forms a thin film on top of the water, stopping oxygen as well as the sun’s rays from penetrating the water, thus affecting the growth of fish species and  below, he notes.

He adds that fingerlings become trapped inside water bottles, and they end up dying due to lower air concentrations inside the bottle relative to outside the bottle.

Fixing the plastic waste challenge 

The county government, local CBOs and youth groups usually carry out clean-up activities in the area and along the shores of the lake. Sensitization on proper waste disposal is also high in the area – especially for the hoteliers.

Noting that it is not possible to avoid plastic waste, Wanguche urges people to use the five Rs: reuse, recycle, reduce, refuse and rethink.

In the context of reusing, he encourages the use of plastic for different purposes instead of throwing it away after single use.  In terms of recycling, the plastic is made into new items that can be used in the environment instead of leaving them lying in the environment.

He says that people should consume less plastic to reduce waste or refuse to use plastics if there are other options which can help the environment. He advises that people should rethink their options when it comes to the environment.

Some of the community members in Nyalenda estate have adopted recycling and reusing strategies to get rid of plastic waste in the area and in the process are making a living out of it.

Judith Atieno resides in Nyalenda estate, about 100 metres from River Wigwa and less than a kilometer from Dunga beach. She sells juices and water which she has packed in used 500ml plastic bottles from various parts of the estate including as far as Dunga beach.

“I get my bottles from waste collectors for shs. 5 (USD 0.05) for every four bottles. I then clean them the way I clean my utensils and put them out to dry. After which, I fill them with blended fruit juices and water then put them in the fridge to cool,” she says.

Atieno’s biggest customers are school going children at Joel Omino primary school. She targets their lunch time break which usually runs from 12.40pm to 1.30 pm. From her business, she can make shs. 350 (USD 35) to shs. 400 (USD 40) on a good day,  selling the water at shs. 10 (USD 0.1) and the juice at shs. 20 (USD 0.2).

On a bad day when it’s cold or raining or students (especially the ones who are in upper primary) are forbidden from going out during lunch break, she can make shs. 100 (USD 1).

Pamela Oyugi, another resident of Nyalenda estate, also sells juices and water in reused plastic bottles to supplement her clothing business which she has put up in a makeshift kiosk by the roadside. Her target market is usually tuk tuk drivers, boda boda operators and passers-by.

She gets her 500ml bottles from waste collectors at shs. 1 each. She sometimes buys them  from some hotel workers in the neighborhood at the same price.

“To the tuk tuk drivers and boda boda operators, I sell water at shs. 5 (USD 0.05) and juice at shs. 20 (USD 0.2). For the passers-by, I sell water at shs.10 (USD 0.1) and juice at shs.30 (USD 0.3). I make at least shs. 300 (USD 30) daily,” Oyugi notes.

Both Atieno and Oyugi agree that getting plastics from the waste collectors and hotels is affordable for them compared to getting new bottles from bottle manufacturing companies.  

Dunga Fish Market shed in Kisumu Kenya – Sharon Atieno

Didi Victor Ochieng, a resident of Dunga in Nyalenda, chairs an environmental committee of Dunga Ecotourism and Environmental Group (DECTTA).

The group organizes monthly clean up exercises along the shores of the lake and the entire beach where they collect plastics and other wastes. After the exercise, they segregate, sort and measure the quantity of the plastic waste which they put in a yard.

“Previously, we used to bring all the waste together and dump them in a truck which was brought by the county government but experts advised us that we can do a lot with the plastic waste. So we now collect them and put them in a yard with an intention to sell them to companies which do recycling once the yard is full,” he said.

Samson Odhiambo, is a waste collector in Nyalenda estate, he collects waste from 120 households and 4 hotels. After collecting, he sorts the waste into plastics, metals, glass and others. He then takes the plastic to a recycling compound at Kachok, where a kilogram of plastic is shs. 25 (USD 0.25).

“For a cart full of plastic, we get shs. 300(USD 30), for a pick-up full of plastics we get shs. 500(USD 50). We don’t know how they measure them but we just know that different plastic types fetch different amounts with the water bottles fetching the least amount,” he notes.

Ojijo notes that from their waste collection, they have managed to make earth benches made out of plastic and glass bottles where people can sit and relax. He adds that they would have also started making fencing poles were it not for insufficient  finances to continue.

Now that plastics are being collected and not left around, residents note that the beach is cleaner than it used to be.

Ochieng, who also operates a boat at the beach, observes that migratory birds have come back. They had flown away due to the presence of plastics along the shores and the wetlands which used to be their feeding ground, he says.

With research revealing that in 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean, more needs to be done to prevent this from happening in our lakes and seas. This can only be achieved through a circular economy which adopts the re-use, recycle and  reduce strategy to avoid release of more plastics into the environment.

This InfoNile / WanaData story was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Code for Africa as part of the WaterCommons initiative and the Code for All Exchange Program, funded by the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy.

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