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Plastic rubbish and debris washes up at the Paje Beach in Zanzibar. Plastic pollution on the Island is killing sea turtles and damaging the environment.Robert Bociaga

Green turtles are among the world’s largest sea turtles. But their huge bodies, shielded by olive-brown shells of hard keratin, are defenceless when their digestive systems become entangled with plastic from the piles of rubbish on Zanzibar’s beaches.

“Plastic destroys internal organs, while bags leave turtles unable to feed,” said Mussa William, a turtle nurse at the Mnarani Marine Turtles Conservation Pond at the northern tip of the archipelago’s main island.

The centre helps protect turtle nests from poachers and educates fishermen about marine pollution. Its big pool serves as an oasis where the reptiles are incubated, fed and then released once a year, increasing the chances of survival of this critically endangered species.

Zanzibar’s colourful coral reefs, its dazzling coastline of sandy beaches and its historic Stone Town have become global symbols of this vacationer’s paradise. The islands are Tanzania’s primary tourism destination, attracting about half a million people each year, mainly from Europe and North America.

But despite its beautiful image, Zanzibar has experienced the grave effects of poor waste management and – like many places in the monsoon zone – its people have struggled with this ever-growing problem. In the rainy season, huge amounts of plastic rubbish wash up on its shores, often from the illegal dumpsites that have mushroomed all over the island. Some of the trash ends up in the ocean, harming wildlife.

“It is a sad moment when we can’t perform surgery [on the turtles],” Mr. William said. “That’s why we need better facilities, and we also look for veterinary surgeons.”

To save turtles, his team has been cleaning up the beaches, but it’s a herculean task. Plastic pollution is a contributing factor to the mass extinction currently taking place around the world, but due to limited budgets and lack of know-how, countries in the global South have found it particularly hard to recycle the waste.

Data shows that in Zanzibar microplastics were found in 94 per cent of sea surface samples and that plastic was found in 64.76 per cent of coastal survey quadrants, putting the areas at the front line of the environmental fight.

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The Zanzibar Archipelago contains diverse ecosystems, including coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, beaches, estuaries, rocky shores and coastal forests. But because of the accumulation of mismanaged waste, large amounts of plastic are entering the marine habitat, threatening those ecosystems.

Zanzibar is highly dependent on tourism, which provides as many as 72,000 jobs and 27 per cent of GDP. Which is why many conservationists believe the government could do more to manage the waste. Authorities banned plastic bags as early as 2008, to much applause, but the islands still lack proper garbage bins along the coastlines. And once a year, monsoon rains transform the beaches into an extended dumpsite.

Local communities and expatriate residents have teamed up to try to save the island’s environment. Sjani Muggenburg, originally from South Africa, fell in love with the hatchling turtles two decades ago and has called Zanzibar home ever since. Overwhelmed by the turtles’ low survival rate, she decided to do something to get rid of the marine pollution.

“It was devastating to me that there is only one type of plastic that I can recycle on the limited budget,” she said. “That was very depressing, as a single bottle has even four kinds of plastic. But I didn’t give up.”

Today, Ms. Muggenburg holds regular workshops on the need to reduce plastic waste and has bonded with many Zanzibarians while doing so. “People are shocked to learn about the impact of the pollution,” she said.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled globally. Another 19 per cent is incinerated, 50 per cent ends up in landfills and 22 per cent evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites.

In March, 175 countries agreed to a treaty to stop plastic pollution.

But recycling is only a small part of the solution, Ms. Muggenburg said. “We should all rethink our purchases, then reduce and reuse as much as possible.”

The world faces surging plastic consumption, which has quadrupled over the past 30 years, driven by growth in emerging markets.

Ms. Muggenburg works with eight local organizations that collect plastic rubbish for recycling, employing for the most part women with no other source of income.

“It is a dirty job, [but] we want women to be informal waste collectors, and we empower them by providing buckets, brushes and knives,” she said.

Her company, Recycle at Ozti, makes products from the plastic waste and recently received a grant from the German embassy, but much more financing is needed, she said.

Without change, by 2050 all marine creatures might contain plastic particles, she said.

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