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Tiny microplastics found in cosmetics, household cleaning products are secretly poisoning Lake Victoria

  • Using the Beat The MicroBead(BTMB) app, we randomly picked twelve cosmetics off a shelf in a supermarket to check if they contained microplastics.
  • Among the 11 products, 5 of them have microplastics in them. The products that have microplastic are; F and W exfoliating shower gel, Dove shower gel, Listerine Advanced Mouthwash(had sceptical microplastics), Pantene shampoo and conditioner and Johnson’s Face care gel wash. None of these products is a local product.
  • In humans, microbeads kill more than 1 million people. On average, an individual eats and inhales 70,000 plastic particles each year. 

By Jane Kisha, Uganda

Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, is slowly dying as a result of microbead plastic pollution threatening its ecological glory and aquatic life. 

Human negligence and failure to control microbead and plastic waste from polluting the lake has resulted in a number of negative impacts, not only to human health but aquatic lives too.

Bwanika Ali, a fisherman at Kasenyi landing side in Entebbe, said the lake is his livelihood but he no longer understands what is happening to it. 

“It’s worrying; nowadays, I see fish just dying in large numbers and even other species like pangolins are slowly reducing in numbers too,” Bwanika said.

He added that besides fish, he and his neighbours use to reap from foods like pangolins which are in high demand by Asian restaurants but the pangolins are rapidly disappearing. Pangolins are threatened with extinction species that are protected by the Uganda Wildlife Act, 2019 and trade in them is illegal.

Read: Pangolins on the Dock

At Port Bell landing site, Wehere Turinawe, LC II chairperson of Luzira parish, Nakawa Division in Kampala said the history of Lake Victoria lakeside communities especially Port Bell with microplastics is not new but alarming.

“I think because our landing side is flat on the surface, floods submerge it and this disaster makes us the biggest and most vulnerable host to all disposed plastics. When it rains, we experience flooding, then the result is plastics, kaveeras (plastic bags), and sewage brought from Kampala, Wakiso and other lakeshores. All this comes and floods amidst us as more continues into the lake,” Wehere laments.

 “Our community often engages in general cleanness but the efforts get frustrated when on an everyday basis, a spurt of plastics from other lake shores and drainages is delivered. Flood, wind and drainages bring and bank these plastics and sewage and it’s a pity that this exposes our health and that of aquatic life in the lake,” Wehere said.

Open sewage

Wehere said that Portbell is also experiencing unexplained deaths of humans and at least on average every four months, they discover a dead body. 

“We request the government to support the Beach Management Committees with fuel and a quick police response in case they are notified of such unpleasant discoveries,” Wehere said.

Another major drainage channel aiding the flow of microbeads and plastics into Lake Victoriais Nakivubo channel, a nine-kilometer open drainage channel that runs through lower Kampala into Murchison Bay of Lake Victoria.

Francis Muloki, a resident of 6th Street Industrial Area in Kampala, said he has lived around Nakivubo channel for more than 30 years. Muloki said he observed vividly how a channel like Nakivubo can aid in the destruction of the environment and lakes if neglected and not maintained. 

Muloki said Nakivubo channel could be the most neglected drainage. Muloki added that nearby residents  face not only challenges of plastics blocking the flow of water but once water and sewage is no longer moving, in the rainy seasons they get attacks from flooding, mosquitoes and horrible sewage smell due to stagnant water, which also causes other health related complications.

He also accused Mukwano Factory in their neighborhood of not being mindful of their health and releasing the sewages and factory residues when it rains.

“We the residents here have walked to Mukwano and KCCA offices countless times to complain about these hazardous situations; they put us through but what? As if they care! They just turn a deaf ear,” He lamented. He requested KCCA to add more disposal containers within the City Centre.

“I’m not surprised that even fish have started dying in Lake Victoria, who knows the kind of chemical residues the factory releases to flow right up straight to the lake?” Muloki wondered.

Sewer pipes

Shafic F. Mugerwa, a scientist and researcher who runs Youth’s Development Initiative Network, Uganda, said that in Uganda, plastic fills up major drainage channels in most urban areas. In Kampala and Wakiso district, when it rains the flooding flows back into the lake. “With this massive amount of plastics and kaveeras in the lake, fish consume them and the result is death of the fish itself,” Mugerwa said.

He said in agriculture, poorly disposed plastics and kaveras affect the growth of crops by denying proper flow of water and air. 

He said Uganda has a number of NGOs and environment activists aiding the fights against environmental injustices, such as Aqualia Recycling plants that buy and recycle the used plastics, Asante Waste management, GIZ, and Leaving Earth Uganda.

He said these activists should engage in ensuring the maintenance of the environment, especially by removing plastics from water bodies by collecting and recycling the waste for better uses.

Patience Nsereko, Principal Environment Inspector at National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), said the environment is a collective responsibility of everyone and urged the public to be responsible in protecting the environment as well. 

Nsereko said people should adopt habits of dumping trash like plastic bottles into trash bins or when traveling, or at least keeping them until a person reaches a particular destination and then disposing of them properly

According to Getrude Mafabi, KCCA health and environment officer, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) has put in place a number of interventions to address the problem, including distribution of street dustbins. 

In a recent press conference, KCCA also announced its partnership with Coca Cola in recycling efforts by signing a memorandum of understanding. This MoU is to see an increased buying of plastic waste from collectors from $0.05 per kilogram to at least $0.13. Coca Cola will work with KCCA and a group of collection partners to collect plastic bottles, recycle them and provide them as raw materials to Nice House of Plastic to create recycled products.

Plastic collectors

A December 2020 presidential order announced by Minister for Kampala and Metropolitan Affairs Betty Amongi tasked KCCA to collect garbage including plastics from more than 250 zones, including informal settlements and markets across all the five divisions at no cost.

At Port Bell in Luzira,  Wehere Turinawe, a local leader said Nile Breweries is teaming up with the authorities in reclaiming submerged lakesides by clearing off plastics and upgrading the surface by pouring murram, which is used to create paved roads.

What are microbeads?

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines microplastics as plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters. Microbeads can also be described as small, solid, manufactured plastic particles that are less than 5 millimeters in diameter and do not degrade or dissolve in water. They may also be added to a range of products, including rinse-off cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products.

In consumable products, Microbeads are described as man-made plastic particles intentionally added to consumer products, typically less than or equal to 5 millimeters in size. Microbeads can vary in chemical composition, size, share and density.

How much plastic is imported into Uganda?

According to the World Bank WITS database, Uganda’s imports of plastics and rubber in 2018 was US$462.8 million, mainly from China, Saudi Arabia, India and Kenya. Uganda’s exports of plastics and rubber was much less: just US$39.3 million, with the majority going to neighboring DRCongo, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi.

In Uganda, various manufacturers make products containing plastics in specific forms such as plastic bottles, plastic plates, cups, cutlery, stirrers, plastic straws, containers, plastic packaging, rigid plastic foam, plastic banners, and flyers with a plastic coating, takeout food packaging and cotton swabs. 

Using the Beat The MicroBead(BTMB) app, we randomly picked twelve cosmetics off a shelf in a supermarket to check if they  contained microplastics. 

Beat The Microbead App is an application which reads the ingredient lists on the packaging and recognizes different types of microplastics. The user can immediately see whether the scanned product contains microplastics and, if so, which ones.

The Beat the Microbead app works like a traffic light: red for more than 500 officially recognized microplastics; orange for the so-called sceptical plastics, of which it is not yet proven whether they are dangerous to humans and the environment; and ‘green’ for all products that do not contain ‘red’ or ‘orange’ plastics.   

Among the 11 products, 5 of them have microplastics in them. The products that have microplasic are; Fand W exfoliating shower gel, Dove shower gel,Listerine Advanced Mouthwash(had sceptical microplastics) , Pantene shampoo and conditioner and Johnson’s Face care gel wash.  None of these products is a local product.

Previous attempts at curbing micro-bead plastics

The countries that have so far had successful efforts towards banning microbeads are Canada, Netherlands, Argentina, France, South Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom,  Ireland, Thailand, Taiwan, Italy, India, China and the United States of America. 

 In Africa, Burkina Faso, Seychelles, Uganda and Zimbabwe have banned all manufacturing, free distribution and import of single use plastic bags but in Uganda’s case, the ban has nor been enforced

Kenya has enacted one of the most stringent plastic bag bans in the world (penalties for violation include fines of up to USD $38,000 and a jail term of up to four years).

In Uganda, during the 2015 World Environment Day, President Yoweri Museveni ordered 45 plastic manufacturers to stop making polythene bags but the orders went in vain.

The Ministry of Water and Environment under National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has attempted to effect the ban on importation, manufacture and use of polythene bags of gauge below 30 microns but up to today, manufacturing and importation goes on. Enforcement of the “kaveera” ban  has been hindered by lobbying from manufacturers, political disagreement and a lack of public awareness about the need to ban.

Dangers of microbeads to human/aquatic life

In humans, microbeads kill more than 1 million people. On average, an individual eats and inhales 70,000 plastic particles each year. 

‘Dr. Trasande Girges  of  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (internet source) said avoiding items labeled 3 for phthalates, 6 for styrene and 7 for bisphenols. (Styrene, which is found in Styrofoam and other plastic products is recommended.

Microplastics entering the human body via direct exposures through ingestion or inhalation can lead to an array of health impacts, including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis, which are linked to various negative health outcomes including cancer,cardiovascular diseases,asthma, pulmonary cancer due to inhalation of poisonous gases, liver damage, nerve and brain damage, and kidney diseases.

Protecting Lake Victoria and its aquatic life against microbeads/plastic pollution 

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s 68,800 square kilometers 83 meters deep and 70-77 degrees. It is shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and is an abundant source of fresh drinking water when treated.

Lake Victoria is an ecological haven to wildlife and other unique species. To humans though, extreme weather conditions and black spots that disrupt communication result in the deaths of thousands of people a year. According to fishermen, strong winds can lead to high waves, thunderstorms and poor visibility causing accidents.

A boat on Lake Victoria- Annika Mcginnis

Human carelessness and negligence poses the biggest threat to the lakes. Scientists say that the lake’s water has become thick from effluent that is being discharged directly into it.

Such pollution from various chemicals and nutrients, as well as plastics, could lead to the collapse of the lake’s multi-billion dollar fish industry. The lake’s indigenous fish species have also reduced by about 80 percent while more than 70 percent of  forest cover in the catchment area has been lost. 

There was a public concern that  the cause of mass fish deaths in January at landing sides in Entebbe, Lake Victoria may have resulted from heavy concentrations of pollutants leading to hypoxic zones, which lack oxygen necessary for fish to survive. However, laboratory findings from NEMA concluded that the cause of the fish deaths was not as a result of poisoning rather it was attributed to environmental factors.

To address plastic pollution,it is recommended that people should reuse plastic items; properly dispose of plastics in garbage bins, or gather and take them to recycling plants; avoid pouring untreated chemicals, oil, toxic chemicals or harmful medicines into the lake or drainage channels; and avoid using fertilizers and pesticides. 

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

Additional reporting by Ruth Mwizeere and Annika McGinnis.

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