Kenya: In Beach Town’s Battle Against Plastic, Echoes of a Global Crisis

A stroll along the beaches of Watamu, Kenya used to mean navigating a sea of garbage, including piles of plastic water bottles.

The trash marred what was otherwise an idyllic setting on the Indian Ocean – and it was toxic for the small town’s tourism industry.

But today, Watamu’s beaches are dramatically cleaner thanks to a novel recycling programme headed by the Watamu Marine Association, a grassroots organization.

With financial support from the hotels clustered along Watamu’ shore, the association pays community members to collect rubbish from the beach. The trash is taken to a local recycling centre where it’s sorted and, in the case of plastic, chopped up into small flakes, before being sold to local manufacturers.

“What we’re hoping to achieve is a circular economy whereby the waste is brought in, transformed into something else and sold off,” said project coordinator Julie Myra Alego. “The money comes back and keeps the whole process sustainable.”

The Watamu Marine Association is part of the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, which is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The partnership is designed to address what experts call a plastic pollution crisis unfolding in the world’s oceans. Some 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year, sickening wildlife, clogging fishing nets and sometimes ending up on dinner plates. If trends continue, the oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050, say researchers.