By Louis Kuukpen, UNDP Liberia Resident Representative a.i.
Monrovia, Liberia; 05 June 5, 2023: On June 5th, 1972, the first United Nations Conference on the Environment was convened in Stockholm, Sweden where about 150 countries, including Liberia, gathered to develop guidelines for environmental action by governments and international organizations.
30 years later, Liberia took a huge step with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency by an act of the Legislature on November 26, 2002, to improve the physical environment, the quality of life, and economic and social living conditions for present and future generations.
Last year, which marked 50 years since the Stockholm conference, Liberia was amongst 50+ countries that engaged its citizens and other stakeholders in reflecting on the country’s environmental management efforts, as well as identifying priorities for the next 50 years. And the issue of waste management, especially plastic waste management, ranked high among the priorities.
As we celebrate World Environment Day this year, it is befitting that the focus is on tackling plastic pollution. Under the campaign #BeatPlasticPollution, we in Liberia must unite to find solutions to combat this pervasive problem.
It is estimated that globally only nine percent (9%) of 300 million tons of plastics produced each year are recycled. Globally, single-use plastic accounts for 91% of all plastic produced, and the production is expected to double over the next two decades. More than 30% of plastic waste ends up in water systems with projections that there will be more plastic than fish in our rivers, lakes, and oceans by 2050.
Liberia, a low-income country with a population of 5.4 million and an overall Gross Domestic Product of about USD8 million, faces a serious plastic waste management challenge. The country generates 0.6 kg of municipal solid waste per capita every day, approximately 14% of which is single-use plastic. This amounts to an overall daily waste generation of 1.3m Kg, of which 84.4% is not adequately managed, finding its way into water bodies.
It is important to note that the fisheries sector plays a significant role in Liberia’s food security and economy, contributing approximately 10% of the GDP. Small-scale fisheries employ around 33,000 people mainly along the coast of the country, contributing to the livelihoods of many communities. Plastic pollution poses a severe threat to the sustainability of Liberia’s fisheries and marine resources. Plastic debris, including fishing nets and other fishing gear, entangles, injures and even kills fish, turtles, birds, and other aquatic species.
While plastic refuses littering beaches, waterways, and oceans draws high-profile attention, an assessment of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on agricultural plastics and their sustainability has warned that the land we grow our food on is contaminated with large quantities of plastic pollutants. Thus, plastic pollution also poses an additional risk to the struggling agriculture sector, upon which more than 70% of the population rely for income and livelihood.
Thankfully, world governments in February 2022 adopted a historic resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. The negotiations on the envisioned treaty are underway in Paris with ambitions that the treaty will be ready by 2024.
To beat plastic pollution in Liberia, there is a need for a multi-faceted approach characterized by collaboration between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Liberia Revenue Agency, municipal authorities, local communities, and the private sector. This begins with developing enabling regulatory framework and incentives to reduce the importation, production, and use of single-use plastics in the country.
The government must drive policies that encourage recycling, promote producer accountability, and support initiatives that incentivize businesses to adopt sustainable practices. By working with the private sector, development partners, youth, and women in communities, the government can create a circular economy where plastic waste is minimized through recycling to create jobs and livelihood opportunities that contribute to poverty reduction.
Through its Livelihood and Employment Creation project that is implemented by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, UNDP has supported community-based entrepreneurs who are tapping into the massive plastic waste resource to expand and re-imagine their businesses, creating jobs and averting air pollution associated with the burning of waste plastic.
Now is the time to combine efforts, advocate, and support investments through the leadership of the government for improved waste management systems, sustainable recycling programs, waste separation, and proper disposal facilities to ensure that plastic waste does not end up in open dumpsites, drainages, and water bodies.
Additionally, it is important that the government and people of Liberia harness the power of technology and innovation to create a future where plastics are no longer a threat but a valuable resource. There is also an urgent need to engage and empower local communities, including youth and women to fight plastic pollution. There are already many youth-driven solutions that have been supported by UNDP and other development partners, including the Embassy of Sweden.
As we mark World Environment Day, the Environmental Protection Agency with the support of UNDP has mobilized more than 200 youth in the City of Buchanan to raise awareness and clean up plastic waste from the streets and beaches. There is a need to step up such community awareness and clean-up campaigns, and educational programs in schools to create behavioral change.
By engaging youth, schools, churches, mosques, market women, local leaders, and community-based organizations, we can inspire a sense of national consciousness and responsibility that can unite people to keep the Liberian environment safe and clean, and free of plastics.
Together we can #BeatPlasticPollution.