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Using art and song to help tackle South Africa’s plastic waste crisis

A new collaboration aimed at changing behaviours through art, song, comedy and practical measures, has resulted in the successful diversion of seven tons of plastic waste from the environment in Mpumalanga.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth’s Revolution Plastics team and the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environmental Affairs (DARDLEA) partnered with UK-based charity WasteAid to run a pilot study in Mpumalanga’s Thembisile Hani Local Municipality. They combined creative ways to educate people about the dangers of dumping and burning waste with on-the-ground action to increase waste recycling, including supporting informal waste collectors and introducing community drop-off points for recyclables. 

The pilot study has made promising strides in combating the problem of plastic waste; with two-thirds of local people reporting a positive change in their environment as a direct result of the project. A survey of local residents showed that arts-based methods – in particular the creation of murals – were significant drivers in the success of the project.

Murals sensitised 86 percent of those who saw them on how to separate waste; and changed the attitudes and behaviours of 80 percent of those who saw them, the study found. By the end of the project the amount of waste managed by burning or dumping had fallen by 27.7% percent. 

The uncontrolled disposal of plastic waste in the area poses a severe threat to the environment and human health, with waste often burned, contributing to climate change and poor air quality. 

WasteAid worked closely with the community to implement strategies to enhance plastic waste collection and boost the revenue for local collector groups. The project focused on both supply-side factors, such as educating households on better waste separation and providing collection bins, and demand side factors, including training collectors on the types of plastics with value and promoting good business management. Additionally, the project facilitated connections with off-takers committed to purchasing plastic waste regularly from collectors. 

The University of Portsmouth created a sensitisation campaign to support the pilot scheme. Collaborating with local stakeholders including artists, musicians, and waste collectors, the campaign aimed to demonstrate the value of waste and raise awareness about the harmful impacts of dumping and burning waste on human health. 

The campaign resulted in nearly 21 percent of community members surveyed saying that they now use the community bins for better waste separation and segregation. Two-thirds of respondents noted a positive change in their environment, with nearly half attributing the transformation to the presence of community bins.  

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