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Plastic waste risks marine livelihoods in Sierra Leone

“It’s the plastic waste,” he laments, “scanning the beach and the sea. They dump all of it into the sea. It badly affects our boats. When it tangles the fishing gear, we can’t catch fish; it creates lots of problems for us.”

Despite these difficulties, Bangura says, “Life has to go on. I have a family to feed, so I work hard out there every day to bring catch for food to eat and to sell.”

The urban areas of Sierra Leone, including the capital city of Freetown, are grappling with a significant plastic waste problem that has extended to the sea, leading to alarming consequences for marine life.

A walk along the beach in Tambakula, a popular fishing resort in the Aberdeen Community of Westend Freetown, provides a vivid picture of the magnitude of the problem.

Washed ashore overnight by the tide, assorted plastic waste covers large swathes of the beach. As the plastic finds its way into the sea through various outlets, including run-off, it is the ocean’s turn to regurgitate this noxious content.

Lives and livelihoods

“Despite the ocean’s attempts to flush out the toxic plastic waste, marine life, including fish, ingest these poisons. It is very concerning,” says Mr. Bangura. With a heartfelt plea, he beseeches the residents of Tambakula and the wider Freetown community: “Stop thoughtlessly discarding used plastic.”

Abubakarr Conteh, a fellow angler, says that despite investing a substantial amount of money, he is unable to recoup his investment because of the insufficient fish catch. He speaks highly of the area harbour master, crediting him with consistently raising awareness of the dangers of discarding plastic waste into the sea and its environs.

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“The harbour master understands the effect plastic has on our fishing nets, so he forbids the disposal of waste around here. Nevertheless, it still occurs to some extent,” says Mr. Conteh, his face marked with disappointment.

Sierra Leone has some 402 kilometers of coast on the Atlantic Ocean, and shrimp, crab, lobsters, tuna, and mackerel are abundant in the country’s waters.

Fishing serves as the primary source of livelihood for the majority of the country’s eight million population, providing 80 per cent of the country’s protein needs and employing — directly and indirectly —some 500,000 people.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the fishery sector accounts for 12 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Moreover, according to the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency, quoting studies published in Seafood Global Market Report 2021 Research and Markets and Sierra Leone’s Agenda for Prosperity 2013, the annual domestic fish demand amounts to $300 million.

The country’s fish market has huge potential, with projections showing it could reach $137.7 billion by 2027.

A polluted marine environment risks this important food source and economic sector. The Institute of Marine Biology and Oceanography of the University of Sierra Leone was established to help with marine research. It has been closely involved with ecological studies. Yet, logistical and funding constraints have hindered the progress of proper marine research in the area.

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Where the plastic comes from 

According to a 2019 country brief titled, Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean, Sierra Leone is a net importer of plastic. In that year alone, nine million kilograms of plastic entered the country as imports.

Ghana, Sierra Leone’s main supplier, shipped in about 92 per cent of its plastic requirements.

In 2018, Sierra Leone plastic imports from Ghana stood at slightly over $283,000, according to the United Nations Comtrade database that aggregates detailed global annual and monthly trade statistics by product and trading partner for use by governments.

Domestically, the country has a small plastic manufacturing sector that produces about 8,750 metric tonnes of plastic products annually.

The country’s National Tourist Board, Freetown City Council and several stakeholders have joined forces to combat the plastic menace. Their primary focus is on collecting and properly disposing the waste.

Other efforts have been directed towards policing the beaches.

Groups like Ocean Forum — an association of several interest groups — non-governmental organizations, universities and diverse companies are helping to clean up the ocean and shorelines by applying various business models that remove ocean plastic and recycle it into new products.

Due to the absence of a formal plastic recycling sector, the informal sector is primarily responsible for the recovery of plastic waste. Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation, through its Directorate of Environment, Health, and Sanitation, is responsible for municipal waste management.

The Sierra Leonean government is yet to introduce a law dealing specifically with municipal waste. It has created, however, the National Environmental Health and Sanitation Strategy, which highlights proposed actions and activities for enhancing waste management in the country, including detailed plans for promoting reuse and recycling.

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Be informed

Environmental activist Mosreen Favour Kargbo points out that plastic waste can be recycled for better use, but that lack of information and awareness underly the difficulty in dealing with plastic menace.

She observes that while the rate of plastic use in Sierra Leone is high, understanding the dangers of it as a waste product is quite low, with efforts to recycle and re-use plastics negligible or nonexistent.

Ms. Kargbo also laments laxity in the enforcement of various international protocols and conventions that foster biodiversity conservation and the protection of species.

Sierra Leone is a party to several environmental agreements, including on biological diversity and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The country is also a signatory to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Being an agrarian country, Sierra Leone faces an additional environmental threat from pesticides used in farmlands that find their way into the ocean through run-off.

The Environmental Protection Act of 2008, amended in 2010, guides environmental protection and conservation efforts.

Nevertheless, according to Ms. Kargbo, more has to be done to sensitize people to the dangers of plastic waste.

“People should be properly informed,” she says. “They must be made conscious of the dangers careless behaviors impose on the environment if they are to become agents of transformation.”

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