By Fred Mugira
Last February, Ramathan Kimbugwe, the CEO of Prowess Communications Company, was jogging early morning when he noticed something strange about a river in his community.
Thousands of used plastic bottles were heaping in Rwizi, a lifeline river for over five million people in southwestern Uganda, at a point in Buremba, Mbarara city. He shot a video and posted it on social media, attracting numerous people, including journalists. For more than a year now, new plastic wastes have kept amassing at the same spot of the river.
Like the Rwizi River, plastic materials accumulate in several water bodies across Uganda. This adversely affects water resources and the humans who depend on them.
The UN environment watchdog UNEP defines plastics as “polymers which are a chain of molecules that are derived from small molecules of monomers that are extracted from oil or gas.”
Plastic pollutants are categorized based on their size. According to UNEP, macroplastics are larger than 20mm, mesoplastics range from 5–10mm, while microplastics are less than 5mm.
Why are there large volumes of plastics?
The reasons advanced for the current large volumes of plastics in the environment are many; one of them is that plastics are inexpensive and durable, making them very adaptable for different uses. Also, the chemical structure of most plastics renders them resistant to biodegradation. And as a result, “they remain in the environment, largely unaltered for very long periods,” according to Dr. David Were, a water quality researcher and lecturer at Makerere University, Kampala.
Byamukama Patrick Byaruhanga, the senior fisheries officer at the directorate of fisheries resources in Uganda’s agriculture ministry, blames it on “poor enforcement” of laws meant to regulate the manufacture, sale, and dumping of plastic wastes in Uganda.
Similarly, Nirere Sadrac, founder of End Plastic Pollution Uganda laments that Uganda’s laws meant to control plastic pollution are not regularly enforced. “Producers of these plastics are looked at in the law as the entities supposed to collect this waste, but that part is being ignored and is not enforced,” notes Nirere.
Januario Mazimba, a resident of Mbarara city, blames the increased number of companies producing locally-made herbal beverages.
“In Mbarara city alone, there are more than 15. Some are registered, others are quack. They all use plastic bottles,” narrates Mazimba.
But also, the soon-to-start production of oil in Uganda could make the country a regional production hub for more plastics.
It is illegal to import, export, manufacture locally, use or reuse plastic products made of polymers of polyethene or polypropylene below thirty microns in Uganda, according to the National Environment Act, 2019. However, since this law came into force, these outlawed acts have persisted in the country.
A 2021 study by the GKMA PET Plastic Recycling Partnership found that about 79% of all plastic waste generated in Uganda is dumped into the landfills or in the environment, 12% incinerated, while only 9% is recycled.
How do these plastics end up in water bodies?
Most plastic pollutants find their way into the water bodies in Uganda through direct littering or dumping.
According to Dr. Were, direct dumping of garbage into the lakes or rivers in Uganda is still widespread in many areas across the country. He cites the municipal waste management companies noting that some don’t have waste dumping sites or have them but violate and end up dumping in undesignated areas, including lakeshores or within the lakes.
But also, fishers contribute to direct littering of water bodies by throwing plastics such as drinking water bottles into the water bodies when they go fishing. They also dispose of plastic floats into these water bodies that they embed on the nets for fishing.
Dr. Were says plastic waste materials can also enter water bodies through stormwater runoff. He cites an example of heavy rainfall events, saying stormwater carries plastics from homes, and business centers, along the roads and dumps them into water bodies. “Water bodies usually lie at the lowest points of any catchment and therefore receive all the catchment pollutants through runoff,” argues Dr. Were.
The other pathway is through the wind. “Many plastic materials are so lightweight that they are easily blown away by the wind into the water bodies,” notes Dr. Were. He says plastic pollutants can also end up in water bodies through sewage and industrial effluent disposal.
“Many of the personal care and cosmetic products we use in our daily lives contain microbeads or tiny plastics products,” says Dr. Were, citing wet wipes, shower gels, face scrubs, and sanitary items, stressing that these easily “get down into the sewage system.”
And also, some plastic processing factories or other general factories dispose of wastewater containing plastic material from industrial processes of the products, which are either dispersed directly to the environment or through the wastewater.
According to Dr. Were, many existing wastewater treatment plants cannot remove plastic pollutants because they are not designed to do so. So this means that the plastic contaminants in the wastewater pass through the treatment processes and get into water bodies.
What happens when plastics go into the water bodies?
Up to 9.948 tons of plastic waste in Uganda is uncollected annually, according to a study conducted under the GKMA PET Plastic Recycling Partnership. 11 percent of this ends up directly into water bodies.
Plastics are primarily non-biodegradable. And therefore, when they enter water bodies, they stay there for a more extended period unaltered.
However, as Dr. Were narrates, “some physical processes occur in water bodies which can break down the bigger plastic materials into smaller ones.” He mentions the example of wave actions, saying these can contribute to the breakdown of bigger plastic material into smaller pieces. He further recounts that while in the water body, some plastic materials get adsorbed onto suspended matter and sediment to the lake bottom, where they are part of the sediment.
Aquatic organisms also ingest some plastics while others are flushed out from the water bodies by the outflow, such as streams and rivers, and transported to downstream ecosystems.
How does this impact the lakes’ resources and the people who depend on them?
According to senior fisheries officer Byamukama, Patrick Byaruhanga aggregation of plastics in water bodies compromises water quality, especially in calm and sheltered waters, which are usually fish breeding and nursery areas. This affects fish breeding and eventually lowers the fish stock.
He also cites the entanglement of marine species in plastic wastes, ingestion of plastic materials that sometimes suffocate them.
Agreeing, Dr. Vianney Natugonza, a senior lecturer at Busitema University maritime Institute, narrates that fish often ingest plastic wastes after confusing them to be food. Subsequently, “fish may develop a false sense of satisfaction which reduces its actual food intake. Which again affects the growth and the survival,” further notes Natugonza, a fishery sciences researcher. He insists that the impact on fish ultimately affects the people and their livelihoods.
From fish eating the plastics, the food chain proceeds by people eating the fish. “So you feed on the fish, and the plastics get into your body,” says Ghaamid Abdulbasat Hatibu, a Tanzanian environmental scientist and ecohydrologist.
Hatibu, a National Geographic Explorer, states this directly affects human health because “plastics are made up of different compounds harmful to the human blood cells.”
Apart from marine organisms, several other terrestrial organisms, including cows, donkeys, and goats, ingest microplastics when they drink plastic polluted water.
And as Hatibu narrates, “when you feed on the same animal, you’ll ingest plastics.”
He warns that the compounds in the plastics keep growing within the human body without the hosts noticing and, “after some time, it becomes primary and later on the secondary level of cancer.”
How serious is the problem of plastic water pollution in Uganda’s rift valley lakes?
A February 2022 study by researchers at the department of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Makerere University suggests that urban areas surrounding lakes Edward, George, Albert, and Kyoga combined produce almost as much plastic waste as those surrounding Lake Victoria, the leading polluted lake in the country.
And also, some growing towns along the shores of these lakes, such as Katwe and Muhokya on Lake Edward and Mahyoro on Lake George, are always littered with polythene bags, empty plastic bottles, and garbage from household use. Plastic dumping along Lake Albert is equally rampant in towns such as Wanseko on the eastern shores of Lake Albert, in Buliisa District and Ntoroko town in the southern part of the lake, and Kayago and Kikaraganya, Kikarangenye, and Lwampanga landing sites on Lake Kyoga.
Plastics are also glaringly visible in some rivers draining the lakes, according to Natugonza, a fishery sciences researcher. All these materials end in the lakes, especially when it rains.
Uganda’s fisheries subsector is estimated to contribute 12% to the agricultural GDP and 2.5% to the national GDP. Several of these fish are caught in the rift valley lakes of Uganda, mainly lakes Edward, George, Albert, and Kyoga.According to Dr. Were, there is already sufficient evidence of plastic pollution in Lakes Edward, George, Albert, and Kyoga.
This water, which is usually used untreated, is drawn from areas close to the shores where children and women easily walk in and fetch it. Unfortunately, according to Natugonza, such places are “heavily polluted.”“So the incidences of waterborne diseases are highest in these riparian communities,” notes Dr. Natugonza.And for the riparian towns, which are a bit developed and depend on treated water, the cost of treating polluted water is high, according to Natugonza, a fishery sciences researcher.
The final consumer ultimately pays the price of treating such water. This makes clean water unaffordable, even in urban centers. In the end, homes that can’t afford to pay resort to untreated water with dire consequences of waterborne illnesses.
Like many other areas of Uganda, the catchments of these lakes are seeing rapid urbanization and population growth.
And as Dr. Were argues, a pollutant should be “viewed in a cumulative sense” where a small input of a pollutant over an extended period can cause a significant impact. This is even more important for plastic pollutants, which are primarily non-biodegradable.
According to Patrick Byamukama, the fisheries officer, Rift Valley Lakes support a highly diverse fauna and harbor commercial fisheries that are an essential source of food, livelihood, and income to many Ugandans.
They contribute significantly to national goals of poverty eradication, economic growth, and national economic development through foreign exchange earnings from fish exports, provision of employment, the fish supply, and value chain addition.
Along these lakes, narrates Byamukama, “plastic pollution is increasing, with increasing population and urbanization.” He says increased production and use of plastic containers for drinking water, soda, and other drinks have escalated the plastic water pollution in areas close to these lakes. Byamukama also blames it on the “increase use of plastic fishing nets such as monofilament, which are prohibited in Ugandan waters.”
Nirere Sadrac, founder of End Plastic Pollution Uganda calls for recognition of the waste pickers saying, “they have not been given the right attention, yet they are a solution to enabling our communities to deal with plastic waste.” He describes them as a perfect solution to stopping plastic materials from re-entering the economy.
He says waste pickers are being exploited by middlemen that buy plastic cheaply and sell them expensively to companies that reuse them. According to Nirere, soft drink companies buy plastic bottles for recycling at 1000 shillings a kilogram, yet middlemen pay waste pickers less than 300 shillings a kilogram.
The Nairobi Global Plastics Treaty recognizes the role played by waste pickers in the plastics economy.
Dr. Were advises that most solutions to the problem of plastic pollution need to focus on proper disposal and limit the use of certain plastic items.
Fines for littering with plastic pollutants have proved to be challenging to enforce. But various fees or outright bans on some kinds of pollutants, such as single-use plastic shopping bags, can be implemented, and indeed this has been implemented in some other countries such as Rwanda. Recycling also needs to be encouraged as much as possible to minimize the volumes of plastic pollutants in the environment. There is a need to create awareness of the consequences of plastic pollution in the public domain and encourage new solutions, including biodegradable packaging material that is less harmful or readily degradable than plastic pollutants.
This story is part of the author’s 2022 Bertha fellowship project.