It's World Environment Day, and IWA Publishing has a new Open Access Ambassador Spotlight blog to share!

Our OA Ambassadors raise awareness in their local communities about global OA movements as well as related opportunities through IWA Publishing. They are representatives of both the International Water Association and IWA Publishing and our joint goals to empower the next generation of water leaders and to shape the future of the water sector. These blog posts highlight their specialty and research focus, as well as emphasising the importance of Open Access publishing. 

This blog post comes from Farida Gitonga, an Environmental Lab Technician and graduate engineer, with a passion for improving access to clean water and sanitation. Connect with Farida on LinkedIn.

Many thanks to Farida for her contribution!

Amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, a group of unsung heroes is silently battling to protect our environment. They are sanitation workers whose tireless efforts in managing wastewater and faecal sludge across the sanitation value chain contribute immensely to preserving clean water sources, protecting ecosystems, mitigating climate change, and promoting public health. While their primary responsibilities may not directly revolve around plastic pollution, their actions significantly impact controlling and preventing it. As we celebrate World Environment Day, it is the perfect moment to shine a spotlight on these incredible sanitation workers and their role in building a cleaner and healthier world. This article delves into their remarkable efforts as part of the global movement to #BeatPlasticPollution.

Managing Plastic Waste in Sewage and Faecal Sludge Systems

Imagine a world where our rivers, lakes, and oceans remain untouched by plastic waste. Sewer workers are responsible for maintaining and operating sewage systems, including tackling the plastic waste that is flushed into the sewers. They face the daunting challenge of removing plastic debris that can clog the sewage network, causing floods and posing environmental hazards. But fear not; these unsung heroes have proactive strategies and innovative technologies.

Plate 1: Sewer system Maintenance (Courtesy Principal Mdolo- Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi)

Through regular inspections and maintenance, sewer workers intercept and eliminate plastic debris before it wreaks havoc. Equipped with tools like robotic cameras and powerful suction devices, they ensure no plastic waste slips through the cracks. Some wastewater treatment plants employ advanced filtration systems that capture and remove plastic particles and microplastics that can threaten water, food security, and human health from wastewater before its release into the environment. These technological advancements enhance sanitation workers' effectiveness and reduce the risks associated with manual handling.

Plate 2: Plastic wrappers and bottles in a septic tank and storm drainage (Courtesy: Mandela Pingo- Bisol Wastewater Solutions, Kenya)

On the other hand, faecal sludge workers manage and treat human waste in areas without centralised sewer systems. Their responsible faecal sludge management practices play a pivotal role in preventing plastic pollution. From safe emptying and transporting to employing segregation techniques, these workers ensure plastic packaging and contaminants in septage from septic tanks and faecal sludge from eco-sanitation systems and pit latrines never find their way into the environment.

Plate 3: Plastic trash in faecal sludge separation during a research exercise (Courtesy: Lone Morubisi, Botswana- at University of Kwa-Zulu Natal -WASH R&D Centre, South Africa)

Collaborative Efforts and Awareness

Sanitation workers don’t only fight plastic pollution in the shadows. They actively engage with the public, raising awareness about the consequences of plastic pollution and inspiring responsible waste management practices. Whether it's addressing sewer blockages or conducting maintenance, these dedicated individuals take every opportunity to educate the public about the impact of plastic waste on sanitation systems and the environment.

But their efforts don't stop there. Organisations in the sanitation sector organise compelling awareness campaigns, workshops, and training sessions, ensuring sanitation workers and communities are well-informed about proper waste management practices to protect sanitation infrastructure. By fostering a sense of collective responsibility, they empower individuals to reduce plastic consumption and advocate for sustainable solutions.

Plate 4: Training of Manual Pit Emptiers (Saniwise Technologies and Changers Group) on PUPU Pump technology for pit emptying (Courtesy: Susan Kanga- USAID WKSP, Kenya)

As we take a moment to honour the environment on World Environment Day, let's not forget the silent warriors battling plastic pollution—the sanitation workers. From those in permanent public or private employment to the informally employed, sanitation workers' tireless efforts in managing wastewater and faecal sludge and their commitment to raising awareness contribute significantly to the global movement to #BeatPlasticPollution. It's time to recognise these unsung heroes and appreciate their indispensable role in building a cleaner, healthier, and plastic-free world. Let us stand alongside them, adopting responsible waste management practices, reducing plastic consumption, and championing sustainability in our communities. Together, we can turn the tide on plastic pollution and create a brighter tomorrow for future generations.

References

UNEP, (05 APR 2019). Better sewage treatment critical for human health and ecosystems. https://rb.gy/o03np

UNEP, (22 DEC 2021). Plastic Planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil. https://rb.gy/ukv1o

WHO, (2023). Water Sanitation and Health- Sanitation workers. https://rb.gy/70x6t

UNDESA. Global advocacy for the health, safety, and dignity of sanitation workers. https://t.ly/y2yu

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