How can our planet survive plastic pollution? #OYW2018 Environment Plenary Session Round Up

In the past decade the world produced more plastic than in the whole of the last century. Each year 13 million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean. Some of these plastics can survive in the environment for 500 years. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if big industry doesn’t clean up its act, there will be more plastic waste in the sea than fish by 2050. A single mass of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, dubbed the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ has grown to three times the size of France. To turn this around 69% of One Young World Ambassadors have personally taken steps to be more responsible in the consumption and disposal of plastics in their country.

Recycling offers hope. Every tonne of recycled plastic saves up to 2,000 gallons of gasoline and the process uses 88 per cent less energy than making new plastic. Ambassador initiatives have also impacted 17,418 people in sustainable production and consumption, from making fair trade chocolate to recycling used sports equipment. ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ was the theme of this year’s World Environment Day. But do such initiatives amount to ‘too little, too late’? In this year’s Environment plenary session, delegate speakers weighed in on how plastic is affecting the planet and what we can do to change it.

Brighton Kaoma, Zambia. Introduced by Antoine de St Affrique

Executive Director at Agents of Change Foundation and the Zambia Country Manager of The Children's Radio Foundation and CEO of Kids FM radio, he uses his position as a media figure to educate children on the importance of sustainability.

Living on a continent where only 25% of people have access to the internet Brighton spoke of how the radio is a crucial source of information for his community. Aged 14 he began a weekly radio show to educate his community on the environmental and health issues they faced as a mining town.  He told them of the plastic pollution which has contaminated water bodies and caused cholera.

With his 2 million weekly listeners he is catalysing a generation of ethical leaders across Zambia. “Radio allows for young people to be heard. It has given a voice to environmental concerns” he said.  

“My message to young people who feel they are not being heard is this: there is more power in youth voices than the people in power, if they’re not listening to you, you’re free to roar”.

Khairunnisa Ashari, Brunei. Introduced by Mary Robinson

Co-founded Green Brunei, a youth-led social enterprise that promotes environmental sustainability through education, conservation and advocacy. She promotes recycling and fights poverty through involvement in the Green Xchange and Green Bank programmes.

Khairunnisa began her talk with shocking facts from her home country of Brunei; each person produces an average of 1.4kg of solid waste per day, more than 16% of household waste is made up of plastics, 1m plastic bags are issued to consumers in Brunei each year.  In reality this means that the river she used to play in as a child is now polluted with industry waste and plastic.

To tackle to problem in front of her she organises beach and river clean ups - collecting 1600 bags of trash, working directly with communities to understand what incentivises them to recycle and embedding long lasting change.

So far her project has collected 46 tonnes of recyclables and reduced plastic waste to just 13% of household waste.

“Incorporating these habits into our lives will make this the normal for future generations”.

Madhav Datt, India. Introduced by Valerie Keller

Founded Green the Gene as a small environmental club at the age of eight, and led its growth into an organisation that spans 62 countries and mobilises over 7,000 young volunteers. His work at the intersection of applied AI and chemical free purification has helped get safe water access to over 40,000 people.

As a young boy he learnt about his city’s falling water tables in class, this knowledge converted this abstract concept of sustainable development and made it a real threat to his friends and family. .  

He spoke of the 844 million people living in a state of acute environmental crisis caused by the lack of safe and usable water sources. Knowing that one of the key causes of contamination are microplastics Madhav has designed water purification devices that are portable, cheap and energy self sufficient. His invention is bringing safe and usable water to over 40,000 people in Tanzania and every day saves women a cumulative 15,000 hours when collecting water.  

“I believe that climate change and plastic pollution are the greatest challenge of our generation. It is up to us, the engineers, entrepreneurs to bring solutions.”

Kavuma Johnmary, Uganda. Introduced by Tegla Loroupe

Kavuma’s company, Up-Cycle Africa, provides affordable housing to marginalised people and gives training in construction skills, by building homes from plastic bottles.

When he was 19 Kavuma’s house collapsed, injuring him and killing his grandmother. Telling his story the delegate explained that this motivated him to do something about the poor housing in his country.

“The pain of my loss, became my source of inspiration”.

He spoke of setting up Up-Cycle Africa to stimulate environmentally friendly housing construction. He explained that currently most construction relies on burnt bricks contributing to high deforestation rates. Instead he sees that the bricks could be made from plastic bottles filled with soil.  Now he trains disadvantaged youths to build houses that are durable, protect from the heat and are earthquake resistant.

His initiative has already created 100 jobs for women and recycled a staggering 1.5million plastic bottles.

“I know my grandmother would be proud of me”. One Young World is too.

Ismael Essome Ebone, Cameroon. Introduced by Tegla Loroupe

Founder of the non-profit Madiba and Nature project in southern Cameroon, which recycles plastic bottles to build ecological canoes for use in artisanal sustainable fishing and ecotourism.

Walking home in a storm Ismael turned and saw a tidal wave of plastic choking up the river near his house. He spoke of how the deluge of plastic waste prevents fisherman from working. As an engineering student he saw an opportunity to use the plastic as a building material.

Madiba has now built 33 eco-boats, each utilising 1000 plastic bottles, the boats are cheaper to build and repair than traditional boats. He wanted the auditorium feel inspired by his achievements; “I am young man of limited means. I know that determination to drive environmental change can bring about change”.

Then speaking together Ismael and Kavuma, reiterated that to tackle the problem of plastic pollution we must find a way to use plastic: “Waste is not waste until you waste it.”

Kehkashan Basu, Canada. Introduced by Rossana Bee

Winner of the 2016 International Children’s Peace Prize, she is the founder of Green Hope Foundation, in which young people, the majority of them girls, take part in on the ground campaigns to mitigate climate change.

Wherever she goes in the world Kehkashan encounters children with a passion for the environment. But bringing the problems to adults, the response she gets is lacklustre, even apathetic.

Her Green Hope Foundation harnesses this childhood energy, workshops organised by children for children. So far they have hosted 120 workshops in over 20 countries; combining education and action Kehkashan has helped plant 15,000 trees and recycle over 100 tonnes of waste.

Her message to the audience was clear, “protecting our planet is instinctive to children” – we should follow their lead.

Miles Pepper, US. Introduced by Elio Leoni Sceti

A cinematographer who now leads on product development for Final Straw, the project aimed at transforming drinking habits by offering the world’s first collapsible, reusable drinking straw.

Miles was confronted with his own consumer habits when he watched a video of conservationists pulling a straw out of a turtle's nose. The harrowing footage made him pause and question, “what if that plastic straw was mine”. His research revealed that we use 500 million plastic straws everyday, he dreamed of creating a product that would both challenge this plastic waste but still be convenient.

Thus the world’s first collapsible, self-assembling drinking straw was born.  

But Miles believes this must only be the beginning, he ended his talk by posing a question “Raise your hand if you believe that single use plastic is bad for the environment?” The whole audience raised their hand. “How many of you have used single use plastic in the last 24hrs” again delegates and Counsellors raised their hands,

“If we want to make a change, we actually have to do something different. If we don't make a change, nothing will happen…...I think that it can start with something as simple as a drinking straw”.


Closing the plenary the introducing Counsellors praised the session for calling everyone to action and encouraged everyone to focus on the way they communicate these serious messages, “a little bit of humour goes a long way” said Mary Robinson.