DOCUMENTARY REVIEW

‘The Plastic Nile’ and the problem with an incomplete story

Sky News documentary lets plastic makers and authorities off the hook, instead blaming locals and their 'population growth'

In Summary

• It showed plastic waste floating on water, buried in the soil and caught in the reeds

• However, it focused on poor users instead of manufacturers, suppliers, governments

Documentary art
Documentary art
Image: COURTESY

Pollution is everywhere, and plastic, as one of the most visible representations of our footprint on this planet, is currently dominating community, policy and media attention. At the forefront are images of turtles with straws through their noses and dead sea birds whose stomachs are packed full of colourful plastic pieces.

But this is only one part of a complex story.

Here in Kenya, mismanaged plastic waste is unfortunately a common sight - piling up on the streets, covering our estates, clogging our sewers, littering our parks and lining our beaches.

According to Our World in Data, the sub-Saharan region is responsible for 8.9 per cent of globally mismanaged plastic waste (plastic that is either littered or inadequately disposed).

Furthermore, the Nile and the Niger rivers are two of 10 global rivers responsible for 90 per cent of the plastic pollution that finds its way into our oceans, with the eight other rivers found in Asia. Read alone, this statistic does not tell a full story; Western countries are known to dump their plastic trash in countries that have limited waste management infrastructure, further compounding the problem.

Despite the scale of the plastic pollution problem, there is, unfortunately, little documentation on its impact on the African continent.

Knowing this, I was excited to watch the recently released Sky News documentary, The Plastic Nile, which ‘investigates the dire effects of plastic pollution on the world’s longest river, the Nile’.

The Plastic Nile follows Sky News' Alex Crawford journey through Africa as she leads an investigation into the issues of plastic pollution from the river's source at ...

The documentary began in Kenya, shining a light on the plastic waste catastrophe facing Lake Victoria, Africa’s biggest freshwater lake and one of the main sources of the Nile River. The picture was distressing: plastic waste floating on the lake, buried in the soil and caught in the reeds. And as the story wound up the river, this picture of pollution only got worse.

With the Nile River running through 11 countries and more than 300 million people depending on it for food, water, livelihoods and tourism, this documentary was a needed reminder that we are all part of vital interconnected ecosystems. 

While this was enlightening, the rest of the documentary, unfortunately, fell below expectations.  

 

Indigenous communities around the world have for centuries cultivated their own ‘circular’ consumption and production way of life. Nothing goes to waste, everything has its use.

Then came plastic, a durable, flexible, inexpensive manmade material created in the early 1900s and popularised in the decades after. Today, this seemingly indestructible material is primarily used to package the goods we buy, from vegetables and snacks to toy cars and biro pens.

We are now faced with an overwhelming supply of cheaply made plastic, most of it unnecessary. Plastic that we use for only a few minutes (think of a packet of crisps) but which takes hundreds of years to break down.

It is no surprise that communities who historically have wasted very little are now wasting plastic. After all, what can you do with soda bottles, soap sachets, and sweet wrappers? Where should you throw them when you live in an area that lacks basic waste management infrastructure?

That’s why it was quite disappointing to see that Sky News chose to focus the story on refugee camps, where bottles are one of the few means of collecting fresh drinking water, small river communities whose kiosks are stocked full of products packaged in plastic, and young boys and widowed mothers selling plastic bags to feed their families. 

Sunset at Lake Victoria. A recent study found more than 75 per cent of the fish sampled in the lake contained microplastics.
Sunset at Lake Victoria. A recent study found more than 75 per cent of the fish sampled in the lake contained microplastics.
Image: MINE PABARI
It was quite disappointing to see that Sky News chose to focus the story on small groups who are victims of circumstances instead of the supply chain and state inaction
Davina Ngei

But are these groups really to blame for the plastic pollution crisis, or should we bring to task plastic manufacturers who profit from the throwaway products they create, multinational brands who increasingly supply single-use plastic products with no regard for their end-life, and ineffective governments who fail to set up adequate waste management infrastructure? 

Their actions (and inactions) have devastating impact on fishermen who depend entirely on depleting fish catches, farmers whose livestock often fall sick because of eating plastic litter, trash collectors who endure hazardous conditions for below minimum pay, and communities who are the most susceptible to diseases caused by pollution.

This was not the story told. Instead, what was expressed was how the habits of the local people, and their “population growth”, are at the root of the problem.

Perhaps this was not the narrative Sky News meant to give. Perhaps this was not the message you got. After all, they alone cannot be responsible to tell this complex story in its entirety.

That’s why we need as many people from as many different places as possible to share their story and their ideas for tackling the plastic pollution menace, whether it's affordable homes made from plastic bottles in Yelwa, Nigeria, or a multicoloured dhow made from plastic flip flops in Lamu, Kenya. This is the only way we’ll get an accurate and holistic understanding of the problem and find lasting solutions.

One thing is for sure, as many amazing ideas as we have to recycle and reuse this ‘waste,’ there will never be enough to stem the growing tide of new plastic created every minute.

We need to put a stop to the overproduction of plastic and then figure out what to do with the hundreds of millions of tonnes littering our land and sea. Doing the latter without the former is no different from trying to scoop out water from a bathtub when the tap is still running.

Edited by T Jalio

Fishermen next to their boats at Lake Victoria. Fishing is still the main source of income but catches have been dramatically reduced over the years due to overfishing and pollution.
Fishermen next to their boats at Lake Victoria. Fishing is still the main source of income but catches have been dramatically reduced over the years due to overfishing and pollution.
Image: JAGPAL SANDHU