• Plastic pollution is a global problem that harms marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
  • A circular economy project in Africa is working with scientists to research the effects of plastic on the ocean.
  • Scientists are gathering evidence in the Western Indian Ocean that can support stricter legislation and behavioural changes.

Plastic pollution is a global problem at the forefront of many people’s minds. We know that plastic pollution can harm marine and terrestrial environments and that on average people could be ingesting five grams of plastic per week. But what we aren’t so clear on is how we can end this reliance on single-use plastics for good.

There are more advocates to end single-use than ever before, and articles, videos and campaigns are being published almost daily encouraging businesses and individuals to ditch single-use plastics. But we need more than than just talk. Words must be turned into action to reduce, reuse and recycle more plastics.

We’re turning to the scientific community to increase our knowledge about plastics: its short and long-term harms; where and in what quantities plastics can be found; and research and development into how we can mitigate this issue.

Setting sail to research plastic pollution

The Flipflopi is the world's first 100% recycled plastic sailing dhow. It was built on Lamu Island in Kenya using traditional craftsmanship to showcase alternate uses of waste plastic and to generate public and policy engagement on how plastics can be part of a circular economy. Since it set sail in 2019, we have been taking part in scientific research to find out how plastics are impacting our environment.

We believe that scientific research can encourage behavioural and legislative changes by establishing credible narratives that engage all stakeholders in locally relevant conversations about plastic pollution.

In February 2022, we launched a dedicated expedition around the Lamu archipelago. During that time it became clear that to effectively address the the plastic problem, we need to understand how tides influence the volume and dispersion of ocean plastic. According to the IUCN, there is little knowledge on quantities, types, trends, sources and sinks of marine litter in the Western Indian Ocean.

Map showing the route of Flipflopi expedition around Lamu archipelago, Kenya.
Map showing the route of Flipflopi expedition around Lamu archipelago, Kenya.

With that in mind, we asked David Obura, Founding Director of Coastal Oceans Research and Development Indian Ocean (CORDIO) East Africa, about the problem of plastic pollution, how it affects marine ecosystems, and how scientifc research, legislation and behavioural changes can mitigate it.

CORDIO, founded as a non-profit in 2003, is a knowledge organization supporting research on coral reefs to improve the health and resilience of marine ecosystems and coastal peoples’ well-being in the Western Indian Ocean.

How has plastic pollution changed over the years?

When the use of single-use plastics took off 20 years ago I saw an upsurge in ocean plastics, but the amount has gone through the roof in the last five years. This is especially apparent in areas where local waste management systems are unable to handle the volume of plastics consumed.

The amount of plastic is even more apparent in coastal areas like Kiunga, Northern Kenya, where remote beaches with turtle nesting sites have acted as plastic traps. Here, communities were moved to act and began to find innovative ways to tackle plastic pollution by creating art from the hundreds of flip-flops that washed ashore.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

What effects have you seen on underwater ecosystems?

Unfortunately, most plastics seep unseen into the sediment as they break down which means they can only be assessed scientifically. Due to costs, research is limited. However, plastics have been found everywhere that we have searched for them.

Furthermore, microbial communities, which help those ecosystems thrive, can flourish on microplastics in the water. However, new potentially threatening microbes can grow on microplastics, bringing diseases and contributing to the declining health of coral reefs worldwide.

How can we solve the problem of ocean plastic?

Currently, the global economy is working on a linear model where products are created from raw materials and then disposed of. We need a circular economy model where products are created with reusability and recyclability in mind, so the life-cycle of products can be extended and overall waste reduced.

If more research and development were directed towards finding more innovative ways to reuse and recycle existing plastic waste, while ensuring new products are created as part of a circular economy model, we could begin to tackle the issue.

Whilst a circular economy can offer a solution for future plastics, more efforts are needed to tackle the existing problem through better waste management, so beach clean-ups become a thing of the past.

Why is it important to research the presence of plastics?

To find ways of dealing with plastic pollution, we need to know what we’re dealing with. In order to clean it up, recycle and repurpose it, we need to fully understand the situation.

We must ask: where does it come from; where does it stay; what are the most common type of plastics; what can we do with it; how is it affecting the environment?

Once we have answered these, we can work out what to do next. Part of the responsibility of scientific research is to prove what’s out there and what are the consequences of not acting.

How can scientific research change behaviour and legislation?

Scientific research can prove that effective, manageable actions can be taken to change the situation. But for legislation to work, it demands huge commitment from legislators to act on the research outcomes. If legislation is not enforced effectively or does not offer viable alternatives and consequential deterrents, nothing will change.

Our ongoing commitment

Tackling plastic waste will take a full-systems approach – from the scientific community to legislators, to individual behavioural changes – every stakeholder must do their part.

The Flipflopi Project will continue to work within its three pillars: education, innovation, and influence, to increase awareness about the issue of plastic pollution. We will continue taking part in scientific research and put pressure on policymakers to make legislative changes regarding plastic production and consumption, while supporting local community-led waste management systems.