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

Revolution Plastics Institute

5 min read Partner content

Seven tonnes of plastic waste 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.

Seven tonnes of plastic waste 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. 

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 per cent of those who saw them. 

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.

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

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

In just three months, the Masibambisane project successfully diverted seven tonnes of plastic waste, the equivalent weight of a large African bush elephant,  from entering the environment. 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. 

The University of Portsmouth played a crucial role in designing 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.” 

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.

Ceris Turner-Bailes, CEO of WasteAid

Embracing arts-based sensitisation methods such as murals, music and street theatre skits, the campaign was accessible to old and young alike, making the messages easily comprehensible and encouraging open discussions. 

Two murals were created in the project area, featuring clear graphical guides to aid recycling efforts and encourage separation of recyclables at source. These murals adorned with vibrant Ndebele patterns to resonate with the local culture, effectively communicated the different types of plastics and other recyclable materials suitable for recycling.  

Recognising the power of music as a driver for social change, a locally crafted song was composed and performed by talented local waste pickers and musicians, tapping into the emotional resonance that music brings. The catchy chorus and captivating video showcasing the murals, theatre skits and community events reinforced the campaign's core messages and the lyrics and performance reflect the pride that the waste collectors have in their work.

Community-based participatory research was integral to the design and implementation of these creative interventions. Engaging with local creatives and waste collectors as equal partners ensured the campaign was ethically and contextually relevant. 

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. 

The feasibility study was funded by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and UKRI International Circular Plastics Competition, which aimed to address plastic waste collection challenges in specific geographies.  

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