Producers of pollution should be held accountable

Interview with Billy Lombe, an award-winning Zambian sustainability practitioner and environmentalist.

Billy Lombe, photo courtesy

What inspires you?

I am inspired when I see activists celebrating their victories in fighting against injustices. I am inspired by our ability to connect our small efforts to create a meaningful Global change. I am inspired when I see communities thriving from the change they fought for.

You have been a campaigner for better management of plastic waste, do you think your country is doing enough?

It is not doing as it is supposed to. Though Zambia has an Extended Producer Responsibility Regulation of 2018 and Statutory Instrument No 65 (SI no 65) on the ban on single-use plastic carrier bags less than 30 microns, the problem of pollution persists. The existing ban is not taking us anywhere, it’s like massaging a problem. The banned bags are still widely in use.

What needs to be done, Billy?

Since the 30-micron bag ban was passed, it has never been implemented, it needs to be enforced to the letter, besides that, we need a full ban on all plastic bags, just like in Rwanda and Kenya. It’s almost impossible for somebody to tell the difference between a 30-micron bag and others. That’s why we need a complete ban.

Have manufacturers and lobby groups played a role in hindering plastic regulations?

Big corporations are only interested in supporting cleanups to show they are concerned but they never commit to coming up with strategies to reduce the usage of single-use plastics. It’s okay for supermarkets like Shoprite to continue dishing out plastic bags and not be held accountable. Corporates should come up with strategies that will bring a yearly reduction of single-use plastics as part of their commitments to address the issue of plastic pollution. Exxon Mobil is the greatest single-use plastic waste polluter in the world and contributes about 5.9m tonnes to the global waste mountain and they are not stopping any time soon from producing more virgin plastics.

Billy making his remarks during the UNEA 5.2 Conference in Nairobi when a resolution to forge a plastics treaty was passed.

Should Africa embrace waste incineration to generate energy and as a way to get rid of the overflowing garbage situation in our landfills?

Studies show that to make the same amount of energy, burning trash pollutes the air far more than burning coal, even though incinerators are generally newer and have more air pollution controls than coal power plants they still contribute heavily to global warming. We know some countries and municipalities consider it renewable energy to cover up with such technologies as gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc. In the U.S. and in the European Union, these technologies are legally defined and regulated as incinerators.

Which is a better devil, have our garbage lie in landfills or have it burned to produce energy?

Any efforts to recycle are far much better than burning waste to produce energy. In producing energy from the waste, more energy is burnt than is produced, it’s uneconomical. We have to know that burning waste materials creates a demand for “waste” and discourages much-needed efforts to conserve resources, reduce packaging and waste and encourage recycling and composting.

A view of waste pickers working in Dandora dumping site.

What was the finding of the IPEN study on chemical additives in plastic that your organization participated in?

Our analysis found that the sampled HDPE recycled pellets contained certain toxic chemicals normally used as plastic additives. These chemicals with benzol, UV stabilizers, and bisphenol are endocrine hormone disruptors. Governments should put in measures to stop the recycling of toxic chemicals to safeguard public health.

Plastic pellets extracted from a doll.

What simple steps need to be done to effectively tackle plastic pollution issues and crises as we move forward;

You and me, James, and many movements, we’ve been trying our best to push for systematic changes and citizens need to know that they have the power to create a wave of change and show businesses, brands, and governments that we still want to see action on plastic and reduction measures are a major solution. My call and a call of many is that the solutions to plastic pollution and the climate crisis are there, together we can keep our environment, oceans, cities, and communities plastic-free for the future.

Some solutions I suggest:

Support innovative waste prevention and management initiatives such as zero waste systems to minimize waste generation and residual waste and develop adequate infrastructure for waste management with the engagement of all sectors involved;

The waste hierarchy should have a priority emphasis on waste Prevention, including through bold action on single-use plastics as well as composting and biogas systems for organic waste management. In relation to packaging, this means shifting from current packaging practices to novel distribution systems that facilitate the reuse of materials and the creation of green jobs generated in sound circular waste management systems.

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James Wakibia

James Wakibia

Environmental Activist and Photojournalist. Read my new series of Eco-Interviews here. jameswakibia.com