The powerful Canary ocean current ferries trash from across the world to the island beaches of the West African country.
Mindelo, Cape Verde – When the 35 teachers at the Escola de Alto Peixinho high school on the island of Santo Antão gathered there in early March, they were there for a bit of a role-reversal. They had come to learn, not to teach – and their teacher, Leila Teixeira was there to shock them.
“When they see a sea bird, a marine bird, balled up in a net, it’s hard for them to see it and to know that we are a big part of this problem,” said Teixeira, coordinator of the marine pollution department at Cape Verdean nonprofit Biosfera, which co-organised the workshop on plastic pollution with the Lisbon Oceanarium.
And it is not just birds that are in trouble: baby sea turtles, after hatching, can get tangled up in fishing nets washing ashore. Fish in Cape Verde’s waters are full of microplastics.
But Teixeira was not trying to dampen spirits – rather, she was trying to inspire action. The workshop was dedicated to ways to fight back against the mountains of debris that wash up on the shores of this archipelago nation off the coast of West Africa.
In Cape Verde, the trend of embracing single-use plastics en masse is relatively recent. As the economy has grown – with GDP nearly quadrupling since 2000 to $1.98bn before the pandemic – so has the use of disposable goods and single-use plastics, activists said.
“To buy disposables, it’s a status thing,” Teixeira said. “They can throw a party and they don’t have to use the reusable plates and the reusable forks and knives.”
But trash collected by Cape Verdean environmentalists shows the island chain’s entanglement with the rest of the world’s action – or inaction – on plastic pollution. Plastic bottles from Bangladesh, octopus traps from Senegal and Mauritania, and discarded or lost nylon fishing nets from fishermen across the globe regularly wash up on these islands, despite their location hundreds of miles from the nearest landmass.
The litter is ferried there by the powerful Canary ocean current.
Later this year, Biosfera plans to open up its first recycling centre, the latest of a handful that has opened on the islands in the last year. Before that, there was no way to recycle, and to this day, recycling remains in the hands of just a few nonprofits.
The work is essential: Cape Verde does a good job making sure its beaches that are frequented by tourists are clean – the sector accounts for 24 percent of GDP and 10 percent of formal employment.
But other beaches with barely any human traffic but essential for the islands’ marine ecosystems, remain the final destination for trash from around the world.
“You’re cleaning, and cleaning, and then there’s fishing nets coming, there’s plastic coming,” said Helena Moscoso, co-founder of SIMILI, a Mindelo-based business that collects washed up fishing nets on the island of São Vincente and hires Cape Verdean women to sew them into bags and wallets. “It’s way beyond our sphere and what we can do.”
The business organises beach clean-ups in tandem with Biosfera, though in some cases, Teixeira said, there is so much waste that even a month-long clean-up with dozens of volunteers can barely tidy up the whole length of a four-kilometre beach.
After the photos of the birds, “they [the teachers] were really interested in being part of the solution,” Teixeira said.
But it is becoming increasingly apparent that solutions will have to come from more than just the islands’ residents because Cape Verde is dealing with the rest of the world’s trash. “It’s only mitigation work,” Teixeria said of the beach clean-ups. “We’re just trying to keep the beach and the coastal ecosystems safe.”
Hope for global collaboration
There is hope that global cooperation could be a reality soon. In March, the United Nations Environment Assembly embarked on an ambitious, 175-country treaty to clamp down on plastic pollution, labelled an “epidemic” by Assembly President and Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide.
A draft of the legally binding agreement that would tackle the 300 tonnes of plastic pollution produced each year – of which 11 million tonnes flow into the world’s oceans – is scheduled for 2024.
“We have these big brands [producing single-use plastic products] and they are scattered and present in different geographical borders,” Erastus Ooko, Greenpeace Africa’s plastics engagement lead, said in a recent Twitter Space organised around the UN treaty. “And having them banned in one country is not quite effective because they can just produce in another country.”
In recent years, international action around plastics has been anything but cooperative – rich nations have shipped plastic scrap for recycling and processing in poorer countries, with full knowledge much of it ended up in landfills or burned.
Sometimes the waste was even shipped abroad illegally, to be dumped in countries with lower environmental standards.
Receiving countries, from China to Senegal, have increasingly fought back with bans on plastic waste imports as they try to shore up enough recycling capacity to handle their growing domestic supply. International shipping companies have increasingly banned plastic waste from being transported on their vessels.
“The big thing about the [UN] treaty is nobody expected us to get to this stage so soon,” said Niven Reddy, the South Africa-based regional coordinator for Break Free From Plastics, a global campaign dedicated to curbing plastic pollution. “The mandate is to look across [plastic waste’s] entire lifecycle, which is very important, because, before this, it was around marine litter … now this opens up opportunities to look at capping [plastic] production, which is very important.”
Back to the future
In the city of Mindelo, a major shipping nexus and tourist hotspot lying across a bright blue bay from the mountains of Santo Antão, where Teixeira held her workshop, Moscoso is worried. Down the street from her office, a new cruise ship port is slated for construction and the trash that tourists and ships might bring with them, has her concerned.
“Tourism is growing…[and] we don’t have the capacity for [recycling]”, she said.
“We need to go back, how it was before, and not have all these big supermarkets [where] it’s easy to find things, and everything is plastic, plastic, plastic,” added SIMILI co-founder Debora Roberto. “We need to go back and then go to when we used to buy only what we need.”
For now, though, nonprofits and companies in Cape Verde dedicated to ending plastic pollution are focused on doing what they can, finding hope even in the most macabre situations.
During SIMILI’s beach cleanups, there are often too many green and brown fishing nets to count. But sometimes, a spot of yellow, red, or purple appears amid the tangled masses – a rare, bright coloured net, the perfect way to spice up one of SIMILI’s bags.
“All of these are hard to find,” Moscoso said, laughing at the absurdity of finding joy in yet another rubbish net.
Like Roberto, Teixeira keeps herself motivated by imagining a future with fewer plastics and often tells people “we need to think like our grandparents did” because “it is possible to live with less waste than the way we do right now.”
“It cannot be only in Cape Verde,” she said. “It has to be worldwide.”