Using art and song to help solve South African plastic waste crisis ​

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A pioneering scheme using street art, theatre and song aims to reduce open dumping and burning of waste as well as increase plastic recycling in Mpumalanga, South Africa.  

Uncontrolled plastic waste disposal is becoming an increasingly serious problem there; threatening the environment and human health. Waste is often burned, contributing to climate change and poor air quality.

This creative campaign has been co-created by University of Portsmouth experts, local stakeholders including artists, musicians and waste collectors to increase recycling in rural areas. The methods being used are aimed at teaching people that waste has value, and that dumping and burning waste impacts heavily on human health. 

The University has partnered with WasteAid and provincial environmental government department DARDLEA to deliver the initiative, as part of a wider feasibility study to test approaches to improve recycling of low value plastics.

Dr Cressida Bowyer, Deputy Director of the Revolution Plastics initiative at the University of Portsmouth, recently visited Mpumalanga, a two hour drive north-east of Johannesburg. She said: “The area is characteristic of many underserved regions when it comes to plastic waste collection and recycling. Some waste is taken to the municipal dumpsite if transport is available and the motivation is there. 

“However, most waste is typically taken to the nearest dumping area and discarded. The waste is very mixed, with little separation into recyclables and non-recyclables – plastic nappies are prevalent. Informal waste reclaimers pick through and reclaim uncontaminated high value plastic waste. The remainder is either burned or buried when the volume becomes problematic.”

The use of street art and murals, performances and video blogs helps to raise awareness about the importance of community-driven waste management and aims to reduce the widespread littering of plastic. Experts believe 70 per cent of waste discarded in the community could be effectively recycled. The South African government has set a national target for 2025 for that figure to be reached. 

Locals in Mpumalanga know they have a large task ahead. A survey taken at the beginning of the project showed:

84 per cent of people dispose of their plastic by open dumping and burning; 

87 per cent of people said they were not satisfied with the current waste management;

85 per cent of people do not separate their waste at home.

The creative campaign addresses the needs of locals and has been tailor-made to appeal to the regional Ndebele culture. Trusted community voices will deliver the messages to overcome any potential language and cultural differences or literacy barriers. 

Dr Bowyer, an expert in creative methodologies for behaviour change, said: “The use of creative methods engages communities in both novel and familiar ways, and the participatory process of co-creation brings a sense of authenticity, empowerment, ownership and buy-in.”

The University of Portsmouth is working with WasteAid on the scheme in Mpumalanga. The international organisation works with communities around the world to build circular waste and recycling systems that benefit current and future generations. Possible points of intervention to improve recycling rates in Mpumalanga have already been identified.

The campaign is part of the International Circular Plastics Flagship Competition, funded by the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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