Mindelo, Cape Verde – When the 35 teachers from the Escola de Alto Peixinho high school on the island of Santo Antão gathered there at the beginning of March, it was a bit of a role reversal. They had come to learn, not teach – and their teacher, Leila Teixeira, was there to shock them.
“When they see a seabird, a seabird balled up in a net, it’s hard for them to see it and to know that we’re a big part of this problem,” said Teixeira, coordinator for the Cape Verdean Department of Marine Pollution Nonprofit Biosfera, which co-organized the Plastic Pollution Workshop with the Lisbon Oceanarium.
And it’s not just birds in trouble: baby sea turtles can get entangled in fishing nets washed ashore after hatching. Fish in Cape Verde’s waters are full of microplastics.
But Teixeira wasn’t trying to dampen the mood—rather, she was trying to inspire action. The workshop looked at ways to fight back against the mountains of debris washing up on the shores of this archipelago off the coast of West Africa.
In Cape Verde, the trend to use single-use plastics en masse is relatively new. As the economy has grown — GDP has nearly quadrupled since 2000 to $1.98 billion before the pandemic — so has the use of single-use items and single-use plastics, activists said.
“Buying disposables is a status thing,” Teixeira said. “You can throw a party and not have to use the reusable plates and the reusable forks and knives.”
But the rubbish collected by Cape Verde’s environmentalists shows the island chain’s entanglement with the rest of the world in acting – or not acting – on plastic pollution. Plastic bottles from Bangladesh, squid traps from Senegal and Mauritania, and discarded or lost nylon fishing nets by fishermen around the world regularly wash up on these islands despite being hundreds of kilometers from the nearest landmass.
The garbage is transported there by the powerful Canarian sea current.
Later this year, Biosfera plans to open its first recycling center, the latest of a handful to open on the islands in the last year. Before that there was no way to recycle, and to this day recycling is in the hands of a few non-profit organizations.
Work is essential: Cape Verde does a good job of keeping its tourist-frequented beaches clean – the sector accounts for 24 per cent of GDP and 10 per cent of formal employment.
But other beaches with little human traffic but essential to the islands’ marine ecosystems remain the final destination for garbage from around the world.
“They clean and clean, and then fishing nets come, plastic comes,” said Helena Moscoso, co-founder of SIMILI, a Mindelo-based company that collects washed up fishing nets on the island of São Vincente and hires Cape Verdean women to put them in bags and wallets sew in. “That’s well outside of our control and what we can do.”
The company organizes beach clean-ups together with Biosfera, although in some cases there is so much litter, Teixeira said that even a month-long clean-up involving dozens of volunteers can hardly clean up the entire four-kilometer stretch of beach.
According to the photos of the birds “they [the teachers] were really interested in being part of the solution,” said Teixeira.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that solutions don’t just have to come from the islanders, as Cape Verde deals with the garbage of the rest of the world. “It’s just damage control work,” Teixeria said of the beach clean-ups. “We’re just trying to protect the beach and coastal ecosystems.”
Hope for global cooperation
There is hope that global cooperation could soon become a reality. In March, the United Nations Environment Assembly passed an ambitious treaty involving 175 countries to tackle plastic pollution, which the assembly’s president and Norway’s climate and environment minister, Espen Barth Eide, described as an “epidemic”.
A draft of the legally binding agreement to tackle the 300 tons of plastic pollution produced annually – of which 11 million tons end up in the world’s oceans – is planned for 2024.
“We have these big brands [producing single-use plastic products] and they are scattered and present at different geographical borders,” said Erastus Ooko, head of Greenpeace Africa’s plastic engagement, in a recent Twitter space organized around the UN treaty. “And it’s not very effective to ban them in one country because they can just produce in another country.”
In recent years, international action on plastics has been far from cooperative – rich nations have been shipping plastic waste to poorer countries for recycling and processing, with much of it ending up in landfills or being incinerated.
Some of the waste was even illegally shipped abroad to be dumped in countries with lower environmental standards.
Receiving countries, from China to Senegal, have increasingly fought back with plastic waste import bans as they try to build enough recycling capacity to meet their growing domestic supply. International shipping companies are increasingly banning the transport of plastic waste on their ships.
“The big thing about the [UN] No one expected us to reach this stage so soon,” said Niven Reddy, the South Africa-based regional coordinator of Break Free From Plastics, a global campaign to curb plastic pollution. “The order is to look over [plastic waste’s] whole life cycle, which is very important because before it was about marine litter… now this opens up opportunities to deal with capping [plastic] production, which is very important.”
Back to the Future
In the city of Mindelo, a major shipping hub and tourist hotspot that faces a bright blue bay from the mountains of Santo Antão, where Teixeira held her workshop, Moscoso is concerned. A new port for cruise ships is to be built down the road from her office, and she is worried about the garbage that tourists and ships could bring with them.
“Tourism is growing…[and] we don’t have the capacity for that [recycling]”, She said.
“We have to go back to how it was before and not have all these big supermarkets [where] Finding things is easy and everything is plastic, plastic, plastic,” adds SIMILI co-founder Debora Roberto. “We have to go back and then go where we used to only buy what we need.”
At the moment, Cape Verde nonprofits and businesses committed to tackling plastic pollution are focused on doing what they can and finding hope in even the most macabre situations.
During SIMILI’s beach clean-ups, there are often too many green and brown fishing nets to count. But sometimes a speck of yellow, red, or purple pops up among the tangled masses – a rare, brightly colored web, the perfect way to liven up one of SIMILI’s bags.
“All of this is hard to find,” Moscoso said, laughing at the absurdity of finding joy in yet another trash web.
Like Roberto, Teixeira motivates herself by imagining a future with less plastic and often tells people: “We need to think like our grandparents did” because “it is possible to live with less waste than we do now. “
“It can’t just be in Cape Verde,” she said. “It has to be worldwide.”