Overwhelmed cities look to solve their plastic problem

Many cities lack the capacity to manage the plastic waste produced by inhabitants. (Credit: Unplash)

Local authorities are often the first in line when dealing with plastic waste, but the large majority is leaking into the environment, polluting the oceans and posing a risk to human health. As countries prepare for negotiations on a global plastics treaty set to begin in February, local governments will have a chance to state their priorities. 

A little over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, producing around 60 per cent of marine plastic debris. Cities and municipalities are often in charge of collecting, transporting and recycling waste, including plastics. 

They also have the power to impose measures to slash plastic use. Cities in Argentina, Mexico, the United States or Canada, for example, have outpaced their national governments and toughened up their laws, banning plastic straws or single-use plastic bags. Cities like London, Amsterdam and Odawara have installed water fountains to encourage people to use reusable bottles. But the tonnes of plastic debris that accumulate in streets or in dumpsites has become overwhelming.

In Mombasa County, on the southern coast of Kenya, only 56 per cent of the plastic waste is collected and treated, with the rest leaking into the environment, according to data from UN Habitat. “Cities all over sub-Saharan Africa are overburdened by the incapacity to manage all the waste that is generated,” said Godffrey Nato, Mombasa’s minister of environment, speaking at an event on Monday organised by the Geneva Cities Hub.

“We have a population of about 1.2 million, and we can get close to 1,000 tonnes of waste per day,” he added. 

The county is working with UN Habitat and WWF Kenya to improve their waste management. It has passed a law requiring households to separate their waste and is planning to build infrastructure and facilities for collecting and treating it.

In Buenos Aires, where three million people live, trash pickers are at the core of the city’s “inclusive waste management strategy”, Melisa Wilkinson, new technologies operative manager of the Argentinean capital, said at the event. Since 2009, urban pickers have been organised into cooperatives, given protection equipment and clothes, storage centres and machinery to collect, segregate and dispose of the city’s waste.

Bearing the brunt

Cities like Buenos Aires and Mombasa County have made plastic pollution a priority issue but they feel out of their depths. Collecting, sorting and ultimately recycling plastic is complex and expensive. 

Low income areas have it particularly bad. According to a study by UN Habitat, 40 per cent of the waste in the slums of Lagos, in Nigeria, came from plastic compared to an average 10 per cent for the whole city. “Forty per cent is massive,” said Nao Takeuchi, a waste management expert at UN-Habitat, adding that one of the main reasons is that residents have little access to waste collection services.

This is not to mention the health hazards. There are dozens of different types of plastics with different added chemicals that are more or less hard to treat. Landfills and waste incineration sites also expose the nearby communities to toxic chemicals released by plastic burning.

“Our waste bin is globalised,” said Nato, noting that their efforts should also concentrate on reducing plastic at the production level, which is beyond the control of local governments.

Echoing his remarks, Wilkins added that “companies committed to sustainable systems and citizens committed to environmental issues are required”.

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“It is necessary for the private sector to focus on implementing eco-friendly designs and sustainable management plans, while we as consumers have the obligation to encourage this change and the duty to choose environmentally sustainable products.”

What the treaty means for cities

Ministers will gather in February in Nairobi for the second part of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), where they will get to express their opinion as countries decide whether to launch negotiations for a global agreement on plastic pollution. Local authorities will be represented by the Local Authorities Major Group, one of the nine non-state members that will officially participate at the meeting. 

Two proposals for a treaty are currently on the table. The first one, led by Peru and Rwanda and backed by around 50 countries proposes an agreement that tackles plastic pollution in general throughout its life cycle, while a second text, presented by Japan and whose sponsors remain unknown, focuses solely on marine plastic pollution. 

Local authorities are barely included in the texts. Japan’s text has the strongest mention, stressing the need for action and cooperation at regional, national and local level. 

“Local governments have an important role in environmental matters and can help implement global agreements, provide input to the discussions and also share the experiences from being close to people,” Mørch Smith, permanent representative of Norway to the UN in Geneva, told the audience. Norway holds the presidency of the UNEA.

For Wilkins, there should be a “real international commitment” to assist local governments through training and financing, “especially to those countries that do not have the capacity to implement a waste management strategy”.