WATAMU, KENYA - Kenya's environmental activists are welcoming U.S. support for a global pact to combat plastic pollution in the oceans. Meanwhile, a community-based initiative is doing its part by collecting and recycling plastic washed up on Kenya's beaches, where people depend on tourism to make a living.
There are mountains of plastic waste on Kenya's beaches in Watamu - visible evidence of ocean plastic pollution.
So twice a week, the project coordinator at the Watamu Marine Association, Julie Myra, leads teams that pick up the bags and bottles and other items that wash up from the ocean. They collect an average of five tons of litter per week.
"It is sorted to be able to identify the items that can be recycled from it such as plastic, glass and metals. For the metals, we sell them to the scrap dealers. For the plastic, we shred it. The hard plastic as well as the plastic water bottles. We shred those and sell. The money that we get from such sales, we pour it back into the project to be able to fund us to do more beach clean ups," Myra said.
Plastic pollution is a huge problem affecting the marine environment. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Program, an estimated eight million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans each year - 80% of it from uncollected land waste.
The impact of this along Kenya's coastal areas like Watamu is critical because the region relies heavily on tourism for income, says Myra. "If the tourists don't want to visit a dirty beach, that means that the livelihoods of those local community members have been threatened as well as the business for the tourism industry."
Visiting Nairobi recently, ahead of the resumed session of the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced America's support for a new global agreement to combat ocean plastic pollution.
"Our goal is to create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all the life that they sustain, from growing global harms of plastic pollution. It's crucial that the agreement call on countries to develop and enforce strong national action plans to address this problem at its source," Blinken said.
Environmentalists have welcomed U.S. support and urged other big plastic producers like China to join the negotiations.
Erastus Ooko, spokesperson for plastics at Greenpeace Africa says "the U.S. is one of the biggest polluters and also producers of plastic. And them coming on board in this shows a sign of leadership and them having not to lead just in terms of pollution and production, but also in terms of also joining in the solution, is quite significant. And we will be following keenly to see how they can be able to also cut off that type of plastic production from their end so that we don't have more plastic into the environment. Maybe we will also see China getting to join in the same and other countries getting to support these negotiations."
In the meantime, Myra and her group at the Watamu Marine Association will continue picking up trash, fighting the battle to keep Kenya's beaches clean.