Jessica Nabongo has visited every country on earth, and one of the most important lessons she took home with her was about plastic pollution.
In October, the 35-year-old Ugandan-American travel blogger and former consultant for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization completed her goal of seeing all 193 U.N. member states, plus the two nonmember states and a handful of territories. Her extensive travels revealed many things, not least the challenges inherent in navigating so many countries as a woman color. Few black women are known to have visited every country as Nabongo has.
Yet, what was most starkly apparent to her as she relentlessly crossed borders, hopped flights and checked into hotels in pursuit of her dream, was the omnipresence of single-use plastics.
Plastic water bottles, shopping bags and food packets littering gorgeous beaches, piled on the side of rural roads, and blocking urban drains. Nabongo witnessed plastic pollution and its consequences in just about every country, she told HuffPost.
“Plastic is one of the biggest threats to the planet, animals, our oceans, lakes, rivers and us,” Nabongo wrote in an April 16 post on her Instagram account @TheCatchMeIfYouCan, where she documents her travels for nearly 200,000 followers.
Fueled by what she’s seen, Nabongo is sounding the alarm on what she calls the “abuse of single-use plastics.” And she wants to use her experiences to help bring about the end of plastic waste.
Plastic Waste Is Everywhere, Even If You Can’t See It
Nabongo doesn’t like to publish photos of trash on her Instagram ― after all, she’s trying to document the joys of travel, featuring snaps of handicrafts for sale in open-air markets in Madagascar, stunning landscapes in Jordan and sumptuous architecture in Russia. But her April visit to Nauru, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific, disturbed her so much that she had to share what she saw.
She was setting up a drone shot of herself floating in the turquoise waters near what she thought were patches of coral. When she looked underwater, she realized the dark patches were clusters of trash ― mostly plastic water bottles, from what she could make out. She posted the photo, which is deceptively beautiful, along with a caption explaining to followers that pollution isn’t always what it seems.
“That was the moment when it really hit me that we’ve got a problem,” she told HuffPost.
Nabongo told HuffPost that because she doesn’t have a background in environmental issues, she doesn’t consider herself to be an environmentalist ― more a concerned citizen of the world.
Growing up in Detroit, Nabongo didn’t really think about her own waste. Much of the city lacked curbside recycling pickup when she was a kid. Everything went into the trash, and plastics weren’t a cause for concern. During her travels, however, plastic was tough to ignore, especially in the developing world, where litter was more visible than in America.
She was stunned by the number of sachets ― small packets that contain single-serving amounts of anything from shampoo to snack foods ― scattered on the ground in African countries. Sachets allow low-income people to purchase tiny amounts of goods as needed, but they’ve become an environmental nightmare in places that lack waste infrastructure. Litter from sachets is a huge problem in Asia as well.
“In some cities, you see it everywhere. Literally everywhere,” she told HuffPost.
Nabongo thinks Western companies should answer for these pollution problems. As giant corporations increasingly market new goods to people in the developing world, they also need to think about how people will dispose of the trash created by these products, she said.
Multinational corporations Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo are responsible for the most plastic pollution in the environment, according to a global analysis of cleanup efforts released this week by Break Free From Plastic, an environmental justice coalition.
Nabongo also noted that plastic pollution hurts the developed world too, though it tends to be more hidden. In 2011, when she was living in Rome for her U.N. job, the city endured a severe flood, and the following year an investigation into part of the city’s ancient sewage system found masses of trash ― some of it plastic ― preventing water from flowing freely.
Africa Is Leading The World In Plastic Bans
More than 100 countries around the world have enacted bans or restrictions on some single-use items, such as plastic bags and straws. In Africa, 34 countries have laws meant to curb plastic bag pollution, according to National Geographic, more than any other continent.
“African countries are leading the way on this,” Nabongo told HuffPost.
A visit to Rwanda in 2015 opened her eyes to what a successful ban on plastic bags looks like, she said. Bags had been a huge source of litter in the country prior to the ban, and in 2008 the government made it illegal to manufacture, sell and carry nonbiodegradable plastic bags, in part to ease flooding from plastic-clogged drainage systems. And while Nabongo knew about this ban when she arrived, she didn’t expect an airport employee to stop her as she tried to leave the building carrying a plastic duty-free bag. The employee slashed the plastic bag open and confiscated the scraps; Nabongo left the airport with her loose duty-free items, thinking, “Oh, wow, they’re serious!”
Outside the airport, Nabongo noticed that the streets of Kigali were shockingly clean. There was no trash anywhere, she told HuffPost. “Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in the world,” Nabongo said. This is partly because of the mandatory monthly community cleaning initiative, a controversial measure implemented the year after the bag ban. Still, Rwanda’s litter-free roadsides are a sight to behold.
Nabongo was in Pakistan on Aug. 14 when the government rolled out a nationwide ban on shopping bags. It was also the country’s independence day, Nabongo told HuffPost, and the mood in the capital was celebratory.
Pakistan uses billions of plastic bags a year, and, because of poor waste management, many end up dumped in rivers and ultimately wash out to sea. The country modeled its law after Kenya’s bag ban, the strictest in the world. The new law “felt like “a huge win for the environment,” she wrote on Instagram at the time.
However, Nabongo also observed a “lack of information” around the ban. She saw in a market in Islamabad that people were still using plastic bags after the measure went into effect.
Nabongo is skeptical about whether the United States would ever pass a nationwide plastic bag ban of its own. In the absence of action from Washington, eight states and hundreds of municipalities around the country have enacted laws aimed at restricting bag usage. Critics caution, meanwhile, that bans can have unintended consequences ― such as increasing the popularity of different types of single-use bags ― and that alternatives such as paper sacks and cotton totes actually create more carbon emissions.
Regular People Can Make A Difference
Nabongo wants people to feel empowered to help curb plastic pollution, even in small ways. After her experience on Nauru, she wrote down all the disposable plastics she used for a week and realized there were a few simple things that she, as a frequent traveler, could do to cut back: carry reusable cups or bottles to use in hotels or on planes; bring reusable forks and spoons too; use only one garbage bin in your hotel room, since cleaning staff usually replace all the used bin liners; pack your own bags and food containers if you’re visiting a market or food vendor.
She hopes to consult with airlines and hotel chains in the future, to tell them how much unnecessary plastic she’s come across using their services. She said she likes talking to hotel managers about how they’re tackling the issue. Some hospitality chains and airlines are already taking small steps to curb plastic waste, she’s noticed.
“Change is coming” to the tourism industry, she said.
The biggest challenge she sees ahead is convincing consumer brands and plastic manufacturers to produce less plastic in the first place. She thinks regular people can play a role here, too. “Tweet at companies,” she suggested. Ask them not to use so much packaging in their products, she added.
“We need to get to the source,” she said. “We need to get to the companies that are creating [single-use plastic].”
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