“When they see a sea bird, a marine bird, balled up in a net, it’s hard for them to see it and to know that we are a big part of this problem,” said Teixeira, coordinator of the marine pollution department at Cape Verdean nonprofit Biosfera, which co-organised the workshop on plastic pollution with the Lisbon Oceanarium.
And it is not just birds that are in trouble: baby sea turtles, after hatching, can get tangled up in fishing nets washing ashore. Fish in Cape Verde’s waters are full of microplastics.
But Teixeira was not trying to dampen spirits – rather, she was trying to inspire action. The workshop was dedicated to ways to fight back against the mountains of debris that wash up on the shores of this archipelago nation off the coast of West Africa.
In Cape Verde, the trend of embracing single-use plastics en masse is relatively recent. As the economy has grown – with GDP nearly quadrupling since 2000 to $1.98bn before the pandemic – so has the use of disposable goods and single-use plastics, said.
“To buy disposables, it’s a status thing,” Teixeira said. “They can throw a party and they don’t have to use the reusable plates and the reusable forks and knives.”
But trash collected by Cape Verdean environmentalists shows the island chain’s entanglement with the rest of the world’s action – or inaction – on plastic pollution. Plastic bottles from Bangladesh, octopus traps from Senegal and Mauritania, and discarded or lost nylon fishing nets from fishermen across the globe regularly wash up on these islands, despite their location hundreds of miles from the nearest landmass.
The litter is ferried there by the powerful Canary ocean current.
Later this year, Biosfera plans to open up its first recycling centre, the latest of a handful that has opened on the islands in the last year. Before that, there was no way to recycle, and to this day, recycling remains in the hands of just a few nonprofits.
The work is essential: Cape Verde does a good job making sure its beaches that are frequented by tourists are clean – the sector accounts for 24 percent of GDP and 10 percent of formal employment.
But other beaches with barely any human traffic but essential for the islands’ marine ecosystems, remain the final destination for trash from around the world.
“You’re cleaning, and cleaning, and then there’s fishing nets coming, there’s plastic coming,” said Helena Moscoso, co-founder of SIMILI, a Mindelo-based business that collects washed up fishing nets on the island of São Vincente and hires Cape Verdean women to sew them into bags and wallets. “It’s way beyond our sphere and what we can do.”