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Zero waste, more hope in South Sudan

The team is working with local authorities and civil society to find fresh solutions to the young nation’s environmental challenges, one reused plastic bottle at a time.

There is no supply issue.

“Every time it rains in Juba, say during a weekend of rain, you can see about 25,000 kg (approx. 55,000 lbs) of plastic waste mixed with silt that flows into the drains, and eventually into the Tomping camp,” says Ms. Gazdar, talking about one of the two UN bases in the capital city of Juba where some of the nearly 18,000 peacekeepers live.

“Finally, the plastic waste makes its way out of all these drains and into the Nile, which is this beautiful, long, pure river which is less and less pristine every day after the rain. So, we’re trying to set up systems where we can capture the waste before it actually reaches the Nile.”

Coping with climate shocks

Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011 following a historic referendum, it has faced many political, socioeconomic and environmental challenges. Despite its lush biodiversity, rivers teeming with life and a bounty of natural resources, it is among the five most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

In recent years, a devastating cycle of floods and droughts have disrupted agriculture, exacerbated food security and affected approximately one million people annually. Above-average rainfall has inundated its rivers and tributaries, submerging large swathes of land, including homes, farms and schools.

Political and economic uncertainty have taken a toll on the development of public services such as waste management and recycling, allowing waste to clog the country’s waterways and wetlands as it makes its way to the Nile River which South Sudan shares with 11 other African countries.

Over 200 million people rely on the Nile for their livelihoods, yet poor waste management can lead to chemical and plastic leakages that threaten ecosystem services, human health and economic prosperity.

SDG 12
United Nations

SDG 12

SDG 12: SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION 

  • Substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse
  • Achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources
  • Halve per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels and encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices
  • Support developing countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacity to move towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture
  • Phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption

Every year, 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into our oceans.

‘Innovate, use what you have and identify solutions’

Ms. Gazdar and her team work with people in the community – local authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Green Youth Empowerment as well as community members who are inspired to find creative solutions to South Sudan’s environmental challenges.

“Even in the direst situations you still have your creativity, so innovate, use what you have and identify solutions,” said Ms. Gazdar, who has teamed up with two young South Sudanese, Alice Sabuni and Andrew Ugalla, to build essential structures reusing one-gallon plastic bottles as bricks.

Mr. Ugalla, a teacher, tells his students to bring two plastic bottles a day to school instead of fees so they can also contribute to the construction project, said Ms. Gazdar. This way, his students learn the value of recycling and to be resourceful.

A house in South Sudan built with plastic bottle bricks.
© Andrew Ugalla

A house in South Sudan built with plastic bottle bricks.

Giving plastic bottles a second life

“Considering that South Sudan does not currently have recycling facilities, we’re reusing these plastic bottles by filling them with soil and then using them for construction,” explained Ms. Gazdar.

Given their durability and resistance to degradation, plastics make robust bricks.

“The NGOs have constructed an amazing collection of structures. Schools have been built out of these upcycled plastic bottles as well as [for] ablutions, houses, water tanks and community centres.”

There is no shortage of plastic waste to reuse. Last year, at a clean-up event that UNMISS organized during World Environment Day, marked on 5 June, peacekeepers picked up 1,500 garbage bags worth of waste.

Inspired by umuganda, which means “coming together in common purpose” in Kinyarwanda – a monthly community clean-up campaign in Rwanda – UNMISS plans to organize more such events to bring people together to care for their environment.

Climate scientist Shazneen Cyrus Gazdar (centre) and UN peacekeepers participate in a clean-up event in Juba, South Sudan, on World Environment Day in June 2023.
© UNMISS/Isaac Billy

Climate scientist Shazneen Cyrus Gazdar (centre) and UN peacekeepers participate in a clean-up event in Juba, South Sudan, on World Environment Day in June 2023.

Reducing emissions, creating jobs

Reusing plastic also helps to fight climate change. Plastics are detrimental to the environment and life on the planet throughout their life cycle. They are mostly produced from fossil fuels and can generate nearly two billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in a year, according to UNEP.

Ending single-use plastics by changing production and consumption patterns also helps to fight the climate crisis. Plastics are detrimental to the environment and life on the planet throughout their life-cycle. They are mostly produced from fossil fuels and could generate 2.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions a year by 2040, according to UNEP.  

“You use one third less cement in these buildings and no traditional bricks, so you are mitigating a lot of greenhouse gases, and these buildings can withstand massive tropical storms and even small earthquakes,” said Ms. Gazdar.

Plastic brick buildings

Today, there are numerous buildings constructed with the plastic bricks in Juba. Besides providing shelter and protection, the construction of the buildings has also become a source of employment for local women and young people.

Building essential structures in South Sudan with plastic bricks.
© Andrew Ugalla

Building essential structures in South Sudan with plastic bricks.

Next, Ms. Gazdar’s team is planning to build waste collection points to support Juba’s new City Waste Management Plant and a Women’s Centre for Excellence for the South Sudan Border Security Police through the Mission’s Quick Impact Project mechanism.

The centre will cater to women police officers, providing them with a stable and safe space to work. Currently, there are no toilets or private spaces for them to change into their uniforms.

“We are all coming together to make the centre,” she said. “The women police (officers) have given us their wish list of structures – offices, changing rooms, storage, toilets and training rooms. Our implementing partners, the NGOs, will basically construct the centre using upcycled plastic bottles and zero energy light bulbs.”

Find out more about how the world can end plastic pollution here.

Learn more about UN Peacekeeping Operations here.

Expert hack: Zero energy light bulbs

Plastic bottles can also make great light bulbs for energy efficient buildings. Here’s a hack from Shazneen Cyrus Gazdar of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). All you need is plastic bottles, water and chlorine.

  • Step 1: We’re using what we have. You take the same 1.5 litre plastic bottle [approximately 50 fl oz], add water and one or two tablespoons of bleach into this bottle of water.
  • Step 2: Seal the bottle and insert it in areas where you may have traditional light bulbs.
  • Step 3: Make sure that the top half of the bottle pops out of the structure so it can capture sunlight through refraction. Each bottle will light up about one and a half metres around it.

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