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Here's why human-centered design is required for marine plastic innovation

A human-centered approach to innovation can help address marine plastic pollution while empowering women.

A person picking plastic waste into a waste bin in Lagos, Nigeria

In sub-Saharan Africa and across the developing world, informally employed waste collectors are the frontline in the fight against marine plastics. Most often, these are women.

With world leaders joining together virtually and on the Cornish coast to discuss the health of the planet’s oceans earlier this month, the time is right to draw attention and resources to the innovative projects that have the potential to provide great solutions to plastic-ridden shores around the world.

Over the course of the G7 meeting, working groups such as the W7, which brings together feminist organizations and women’s rights advocacy groups from the G7 countries, set out to ensure that leaders adopt concrete commitments that lead to a tangible, lasting and transformative impact on women's and girls’ lives in 2021 and beyond.

Using a human-centered approach to innovation can help us to address both issues at once — reducing marine plastic pollution while empowering women.

There won’t be just one solution to the problem of marine plastics — we’ve watched the documentaries and read the articles. Now governments, citizens and manufacturers are waking up to the idea that radical change is required at many levels and all around the globe.

While there’s a place for emergent technology in creating new products and packaging, and for scientists to cultivate all types of plastic-eating fungus, the most obvious and immediate way to prevent a build-up of microplastics in our ocean is quite simply to prevent plastics entering the marine ecosystem in the first place.

Over the past years, demand for plastic has substantially increased in sub-Saharan Africa and is projected to follow the same trajectory over the next decades — one estimate indicates a growth of 375 percent in sub-Saharan African and the Middle East and North Africa combined, compared to a global average of 210 percent by 2060. Under this trend, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to become the dominant region globally in terms of total waste generation.

When exploring potential solutions or avenues for systems change, we have to put the women involved at the heart of the process.

Many countries have legislated against exports of plastics to developing countries, and we have seen bans on plastic bags introduced by many African nations. Despite this, the coastline of sub-Saharan Africa still suffers from an immense amount of domestic pollution from a product that is cheap, convenient and hygienic, yet leaves an environmental footprint that we cannot calculate.

While collecting the waste is a step towards the right direction, efforts are needed beyond this to ensure plastic is properly processed and recycled — not burnt in fires which produce toxic fumes, increasing air pollution and further health problems for local people.

In sub-Saharan Africa and across the developing world, informally employed waste collectors are the frontline in the fight against marine plastics. Most often, these are women — doing low-skilled, low paid work — combing the beaches and cities, filling bags of plastic each day which are pooled and sent to be processed in recycling centers. This work is far from glamorous but is a vitally important preventative part of ensuring that plastic waste never reaches the sea in the first place.

When exploring potential solutions or avenues for systems change, we have to put the women involved at the heart of the process.

The most effective and impactful solutions to social and environmental problems are those designed in partnership with the people they are intended to serve. The women working in the informal economy live in the areas most affected — they are personally affected by the health of the oceans and coastlines where they live, they see both the ugly blemish of the waste on the coast and know the depleted fish stocks that have put pressure on livelihoods and changed their diets. Ultimately, they understand the scale of the problem and the potential for change — they’re already part of the solution.

The conventional approach to innovation is to build a new technology that one thinks will solve a problem and assumes is what people want — it's then put into market to see what happens. The problem is that when working across cultures, the barriers to behavior change and adopting new technology are very nuanced and subject to hyper-local factors which are not always easily understood. Human-centered design finds out what people really need and how they might engage with potential solutions, as innovators as well as recipients.

Human-centered design is a state of mind to always have people at the core of planning, thinking and doing. It is the process of engaging with the people involved to understand their view of the problem and using that thinking to design and deliver programs and products that ultimately generate something much more credible and, in turn, more likely to succeed.

Yes, technology can and does provide radical solutions, but we need to consider the wider economic and societal impact when designing for change. Just as connecting water pipes to rural villages removes the social ritual of the daily trip to the water source, we need to find solutions that work with and for the communities we are intending to benefit.

We need to understand cultural norms within the communities with whom we are working. Whilst it would be simple to suggest that Africa returns to using glass bottles and its traditional return/exchange process, the trend towards the convenience of plastic packaging is highly appealing to the growing middle classes, as in other parts of the world. Therefore, solutions will be more complex and will need to include a strong behavior change component to ensure that the recycling infrastructure meets the growing demand.

When we launch innovation programs seeking out the most effective ideas in this area to scale and replicate, we mustn’t overlook the community of female entrepreneurs already engaged in this activity simply because they are not formally constituted. Human-centered design means following an innovation process that involves talking and working with those on the frontline of the problem. In this case, African women are both the beneficiaries and, more importantly, the innovators.

Africa has one of the highest rates of entrepreneurs and has a particularly strong rate of female entrepreneurs. According to a 2019 World Bank report, women in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to be in the labor force than in other regions, and sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in which women are more likely than men to be entrepreneurs. Dynamic as this sounds, the reality is that many are effectively forced into entrepreneurial careers by unemployment.

This in part is driven by local power dynamics within communities, where women tend to take on a significant amount of "drudgery" work, as well as care work. Additional gender differentials dictate how work is distributed between men and women, and even the type of work women do. As such they must be creative in generating income, which often leads them to roles within informal waste management.

The informal recycling economy has made a huge contribution to preventing marine plastics.

There are already some shining examples of women who already lead scalable solutions to the plastics problem. Companies such as Nairobi-based Gjenge Makers, founded by 29-year-old engineer Nzambi Matee, are solving multiple problems at once — using discarding plastics to make useful products, whilst providing employment. This social enterprise collates waste plastics from packaging manufacturers and recyclers and processes it, mixing the unwanted plastic with sand to form into bricks stronger than concrete.

The result is effective disposal of plastic waste for manufacturers, an outstanding quality product for the construction industry and a whole lot of plastic saved from incineration or reaching the seas. Using human-centered design should allow the innovation process to identify and help more women such as Nzambi to scale and grow their businesses, either domestically or across the continent.

While there is increased interest from around the world in supporting projects that promote women’s employment and economic empowerment, the investment required to grow successful, innovative women-led projects and businesses that provide scalable change is still marginal. That, together with the influence of gender differentials, means it is even more important to take a human-centered approach to encourage the efforts of those women at all levels of the plastics recycling value chain, working with both litter-pickers and the talent and creativity of women innovators whose ideas already address the problem.

The informal recycling economy has made a huge contribution to preventing marine plastics. We owe them gratitude and recognition, and we should celebrate the work done so far by the women who have proactively been solving our common environmental challenges. We also should be identifying and investing in what works.

There’s some brilliant work already going on — scaling, replicating and amplifying what’s already been achieved holds great potential to generate even greater impacts on lives, livelihoods and the environment.

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