Kai, a three-year-old green sea turtle, was released back into the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean off Kenya’s coast last month.

She had been hospitalised after her guts were blocked with white plastic bags she swallowed, mistaking them for jellyfish, and tiny plastic pieces entangled in the sea grass she eats. 

In a bid to clean up Kai’s environment, the villagers of Watamu, who depend on fishing and tourism, joined hands in 2016 with an entrepreneur and a local ocean conservation charity to recycle plastic waste from two marine national parks in eastern Kenya. 

In Malindi town, 20 kilometres from Watamu and 115km north of Mombasa, Sam Ngaruiya, 59, is turning plastic waste collected from beaches into green construction materials.

They include six-foot fencing poles used by schools and farms, road signs, paving, roof tiles and recycled plastic containers slowly gaining traction among local people. 

“These recycled plastic products can last 200 years,” said Ngaruiya. The negative aspect of plastic waste – that it does not deteriorate or decompose for hundreds of years - becomes a positive when converted into construction materials, he added.

HIT HARDEST 

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the tourism industry suffered from 2011 to 2015, with coastal marine parks hit the hardest. Visitors to Kilifi County’s Watamu marine park fell by 35 per cent, while that in Malindi saw about 40 per cent fewer. 

The Government attributes the drop to security concerns caused by attacks linked to Islamist groups. 

Ben Kithiy, a 24-year-old currency changer in Watamu who makes a living from European and American tourists visiting the fine white sand beaches to snorkel, water ski and windsurf, can think of another reason. “Floating plastic pieces sticking to the body when you are swimming in these waters makes for a very unpleasant experience,” he said. Even local children who come to clean up the beaches don’t want to swim for that reason, he added. 

Every year, between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the world’s oceans, depending on river flooding, costing some $8 billion (Sh800 billion), according to a 2017 report from UN Environment.

Kithiy found five foul-smelling dead turtles on his local beach in Blue Lagoon Bay last year. Several others were floating inertly in shallow waters after eating plastic, and would likely have starved to death, he said. 

Casper Van De Geer, who manages the Watamu Turtle Watch conservation programme in Malindi, said that of the 30 to 80 turtles brought in for rehabilitation each year, 15 per cent are harmed by plastic.