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

Mural decorated in vibrant colours, educating on waste separation

Seven tonnes of plastic waste – the equivalent weight of a large African bush elephant – has been successfully diverted from the environment thanks to a pioneering new collaboration in South Africa which aimed to change behaviours through art, song, comedy skits, as well as practical measures.     

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 the Thembisile Hani Local Municipality of the Mpumalanga Province. 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. 

By the end of the project the amount of waste managed by burning or dumping had fallen by 27.7% per cent. 

A survey of local residents showed that arts-based methods – in particular the creation of murals adorned with vibrant Ndebele patterns educating people about waste separation – were significant drivers in the success of the project.

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. 

Working closely with the local community, WasteAid implemented 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. 

Meanwhile, the University of Portsmouth designed a creative 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. 

Dr Cressida Bowyer, Deputy Director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth, said:

“Sensitisation is a vital process for educating communities, raising awareness and inspiring behaviour change. To make messaging more effective, it’s important for the message creators to reside in the target community, understand local social and cultural contexts, and actively participate in the production of campaign materials.”

Ceris Turner-Bailes, CEO of WasteAid added:

“This is a great example of the positive outcomes that can be achieved through collaboration between the third sector, academia, and private sector. The educational and creative elements for this project made it almost impossible for people in the community to ignore our initiative. It sparked interest and helped facilitate important discussions on the steps people could take to improve waste collection and increase recycling.” 

The campaign showed promising results in just a short period of time. Nearly 21 percent of community members surveyed now use the community bins for better waste separation and segregation. Most importantly two-thirds of respondents noted a positive change in their environment, with nearly half attributing the transformation to the presence of community bins.