Ideas & Debate

The dead cockroach in blue economy’s plate


A ship arrives at the port of Mombasa. There is much work to be done to help citizens internalise the link between the potentials of marine economy and their own economic well-being. FILE PHOTO | NMG


  • There is much work to be done to help citizens internalise the link between the potentials of marine economy and their own economic well-being.

Blue economy is in vogue. The world woke up to the realisation that there was a goldmine whose richness and potential still lay unexploited, more so in the developing world.

The significance of the sector was underscored late last year when more than 10, 000 delegates from more than 180 countries descended on Nairobi for a three-day Sustainable Blue Economy Conference. Held at the city’s iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre, the focus wasn’t just on exploitation but also on sustainability and inclusiveness.

Quite evidently, the conference was just the beginning. There is much work to be done to help citizens internalise the link between the potentials of marine economy and their own economic well-being.

We have barely scratched the surface of the Indian Ocean maritime resources, and if we stretch it a little, the potential of the many inland lakes including Lake Victoria, Naivasha, Turkana and other lakes that sit on the Rift Valley. Think about fisheries and aquaculture, maritime transportation and seaborne trade, coastal tourism, energy generation and mining, among others.

In an economy that is struggling to grow jobs, repay loans and expand infrastructure, blue economy offers incredible opportunities that can only be tapped when an enabling environment is created and investors empowered to seize the opportunities.

Blue economy, however, is fraught with many challenges and threats. One of those challenges emanates from something we made and depend on greatly but which we are now drowning in. It is the PET bottle, primarily, but other plastics as well.

It is against this background that several organisations, among them Sustainable Inclusive Business, Kenya Association of Manufacturers, National Environment Management Authority and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, organised a side event. “Building the global momentum on marine/aquatic plastics litter”, which specifically focused on this critical aspect of the blue economy . The idea was to create a platform to learn and share experiences and initiatives in plastic management, both globally and in Kenya and to provide the opportunity to collaborate with other stakeholders taking action on plastics waste management across the value chain.

Ironically, the tourism sector stands out as one of the biggest users of PET bottles. We have approximately 1.5 million tourists who visit Kenya each year, staying on average six days. They are provided with 1.5 litres of water (mostly in 500 ml bottles) a day. That is 27 million plastic water bottles a year.

What happens when these bottles end up in the ocean as tens of millions of them do every year?

First, plastic does not degrade or decompose easily. They can stay in the environment for decades, continuing to impact marine life long after those who disposed them have left the scene. When plastic enter the ocean system, they are consumed by marine life including fish, whale, sea gulls, which confuse them for food. Once ingested, they poison the digestive system killing the animal slowly over time. Remember, some of these sea animals eventually end up in plates around the world, poisoning unsuspecting individuals.

The plastics can also entangle marine animals and birds and being unable to free themselves or even feed, they eventually starve to death or become more susceptible to marine prey.

Today, it is estimated 100 million metric tonnes of plastic are present in the oceans. That is a big deal.

Yet the immediate solution to this gigantic tragedy may not be to ban PET bottles as we did with plastic carrier bags, though it would be a great thing if we could get alternatives.

My motto on this subject has been the 3Rs also known as Reduce Reuse Recycle. These three Rs should inform our current and future action on PET bottles.

First, the owners of the products should, rightly so, take ultimate responsibility for the waste plastic bottles. And that can work best where there is enabling policy, public education, take-back infrastructure and a regime for reward and punishment.

The second thing is that the use of plastic bottles can be avoided altogether in more cases than we imagine. We can, for instance, bring along own reusable bottles to workshops and conferences rather wait to be given water in plastic bottles.

There are also areas where PET bottles can be reused for various purposes instead of just disposing of them. Recycling of PET bottles can be big business, which creates jobs, protects the environment and supports other sectors of the economy.

This process should start with sorting waste, handing over to recyclers who can use them to produce various items including mattresses, clothing, pillows, carpets, strapping or PET bottles.

There is an opportunity for county governments to clean up beaches and the general environment in the process creating jobs for Kenya’s unemployed.

If you forget everything from the Sustainable Blue Economy, remember you can contribute to the growth of that segment of the economy through Refuse, Replace, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle challenge.

KARIN BOOMSMA, Director, Sustainable Inclusive Business.