Children playing and swinging from cable by a gate in Nairobi slum. Life Solved logo and title

What are the “wicked problems” facing our planet, how are they connected and how can we address them?

  • 28 October 2021
  • 16 min listen

Ahead of COP 26, the UN’s Global Climate Change Conference, Dr Cressida Bowyer speaks to the Life Solved podcast about insights The University of Portsmouth will be sharing.

Community resilience

The University has been working with communities in informal settlements around Nairobi, Kenya, in order to tackle issues of air pollution and poor lung health. Creative methodologies have provided a rich source of information and insight into specific problems.

Cressida says that by working with ‘community champions’, researchers can learn vital contextual information from local people and find out how work is having an impact there. These community champions also work as a trusted conduit of information from international research projects to the local people.

People really need to understand what's going on so they're not suspicious about the project and to give consent for their children to be involved.

Dr Cressida Bowyer, Senior Research Fellow

One such project is the Tupumue project. Tupumue means ‘let’s breathe’ in Swahili and is gathering data from schoolchildren in two areas near Nairobi: the informal settlement of Mukuru and the wealthier area of Buruburu.

One of the reasons air pollution is such an issue in the Global South is the vast amount of plastic waste. The burning of plastics, in addition to carbon-emitting cooking and heating fuels, can mean that lung health is impacted long-term, especially in urban areas. Tupumue has been working with community champions to explore how the respiratory health of children living in these Mukuru and Buruburu is affected. The children have been creating artworks that express their experiences of lung health, which adds unique and insightful qualitative data to the study.

In addition, the University has been looking at urban plastic pollution in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh.

We, the Global North, export the most difficult to recycle waste. 50% or more of our plastic waste is exported to countries in the Global South. They don't even have the infrastructure to deal with their own plastic waste, let alone out of plastic waste.

Dr Cressida Bowyer, Senior Research Fellow

Cressida says that the adaptability of the community to change and external stresses are vital in helping people survive the impacts of world problems. She calls this ‘resilience’ which can be used as an indicator of the health of a local population and its environment.

Wicked problems: climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss

Whilst understanding and implementing changes to tackle pollution on a local level is one vital action, the other side is in solving the global problem.

Cressida says that the global crises of climate change, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss must be addressed on the international level and that all three are interconnected.

For that reason, she’s been working with the University of Portsmouth’s Revolution Plastics Initiative on an ambitious agenda for COP26.

The UN’s Global Climate Change Conference will take place in Glasgow this November, and in addition to presenting a Community Participation approach, the team will be pressing a multi-level approach to tackling plastics pollution.

Addressing plastic waste is climate action. A community-based participatory approach uses creative methodologies to research community resilience and adaptation to climate change. This could be utilised to motivate climate action.

Dr Cressida Bowyer, Senior Research Fellow

Cressida’s hope is that by gaining insight into communities, local-scale solutions can be implemented to ease the impacts of plastic waste and climate change whilst at the same time work takes place on a global level to address the causes of these problems.

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Welcome to Life Solved, the research podcast from the University of Portsmouth. This time, how can we combine community-focused research and action with global initiatives to tackle our world's greatest problem?

Cressida Bowyer: The really important thing is this participatory element; talking about how we could use those methods to research community resilience and adaptation to climate change, and how we can also use those creative methods to motivate climate action.

Anna Rose: From air pollution to plastic waste, ocean sustainability and climate change, nothing's off the agenda this time. Let's catch up with Dr

Cressida Bowyer Bowyer. In an earlier episode of Life Solved, we met

Cressida Bowyer alongside Dr Louis Netter and heard about their work using art to create social interventions during the spread of COVID 19 in informal settlements near Nairobi, through Act Nairobi.

Cressida Bowyer: My name is Dr

Cressida Bowyer Bowyer, I'm a senior research fellow at the University of Portsmouth, and I work as part of the Revolution Plastics Initiative. Revolution Plastics is looking at ways to tackle the amount of plastic pollution on our planet.

Anna Rose:

Cressida Bowyer's also worked with populations on tackling air pollution and promoting lung health through awareness and engagement in communities. What's unique about

Cressida Bowyer's approach is that she combines creative methods of engagement to share information and collaborates with community activists to make sure the context is relevant and effective. This happens within a framework of science and research that allows her to focus on the impact of the work. She explained.

Cressida Bowyer: We really started off with how we can use creative methods to disseminate science findings. But then I got very interested in how we can use creative methods as a research tool. I'm really interested in an approach called community-based participatory research, which is basically research in the community for the community with the community, in order to benefit the community. The sort of plain thinking is that how can you start creating solutions to community problems without actually consulting properly with the communities in the first place? And of course, when you do start consulting with communities, you realise that there's an enormous amount of local knowledge and expertise in what is called in the jargon, social capital. Not only are you finding out what is actually relevant and what really one needs to know to create successful interventions, but you will also engage the community at that point with the research.

Anna Rose:

Cressida Bowyer's approach involves collaboration with community champions. These individuals are the conduit between researchers and the community. In many awareness-raising or sensitisation campaigns, for example, in emphasising the importance of handwashing during COVID 19, these individuals have a vital role to play in communicating the goals and background of the project with local people. That's absolutely vital when people are required to share their personal information for the benefit of research and its ultimate impact on their lives. We heard on that earlier episode how the team used digital storytelling, as well as puppet shows, murals, parades, comics and music to share information and invite people to engage in experiences of health and sanitation in their communities during COVID 19. This has since expanded into the Tupumue project that's generating lived experience accounts vital to planning interventions in specific communities.

Cressida Bowyer: People really need to understand what's going on, so they're not suspicious about the project to give consent for their children to be involved.

Anna Rose: Tupumue, Let's breathe in Swahili, is a project that's been using these methods to explore the impact of air pollution and youth upon life expectancy. Tupumue works with specific communities in Kenya's informal settlements.

Cressida Bowyer: Air pollution is a huge problem in these informal settlements. There's a lot of burning of plastic waste and just the everyday experiences, you know, the way people cook, the fact that the informal settlements are surrounded by unregulated industry – who are basically, discharging toxic gases into the local environment. One of the definitions of air pollution that came up when we did the air net project is the smell of the sewage that's running through drainage channels in the streets. For instance, the smell of sewage isn't something that would sort of academic researcher wouldn't traditionally be classed as air pollution. I mean, maybe, methane gas might be but bad odour wouldn't be. But it came out very clearly.

Anna Rose: Context is everything in successfully communicating, gathering and interpreting data on the local and community scale.

Cressida Bowyer explained how this localised approach is increasingly vital in understanding how to answer questions on a wider scale.

Cressida Bowyer: We really need to access and acknowledge this local expertise. You know, when we're talking about things like adaptation and resilience to climate change, you know, resilience is the sort of shock absorber if you like in a community or an ecosystem or an individual as to how they can absorb and adapt to shock change. How can anybody possibly know what resilience there is in an individual or a community unless you go and find out or ask the community to do the research?

Anna Rose: This concept of resilience is fundamental to a range of projects the University of Portsmouth is backing in order to tackle global problems. We'll find out more in a moment. But first, the Step Project stands for sustainable transition to end plastic pollution and aims to address one of the world's biggest environmental and social crises. This is just one example of how localised understanding can offer information on the escalation of global problems.

Cressida Bowyer: We know that cities in the global south are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution. The global south per capita production of plastic pollution is much lower than it is in the global north. But when you travel to these countries, as you probably know, you see enormous amounts of plastic in the environment. One of the reasons for that is that we, the global north, export a lot of our plastic waste to the global south, and we export the most difficult to recycle waste if you like. 50 per cent or more of our plastic waste is exported to countries in the global south. They don't even have the infrastructure to deal with their own plastic waste, let alone our plastic waste. In Bangladesh, for the Step project, we're working with the city Sylhet, which is a city of just under a million people and again suffers from pretty bad local plastic pollution in the environment. Now the consequences of that plastic pollution in the environment are manifold. So a lot of plastic waste is burnt because there's so much of it people don't really know what to do with it. So it's burnt. That kind of reduces its bulk. However, burning of plastic waste releases not only greenhouse gases but also some pretty toxic cancer-causing chemicals. Plastic pollution also blocks the drainage channels, so you get pools of untreated human waste, which of course can cause outbreaks of cholera and breeding grounds for parasitic diseases and mosquito-borne diseases. The plastic waste gets blown into rivers, and then obviously the rivers carry the plastic waste down to the sea, and then it becomes ocean plastic pollution. Plastic waste on land stops people being able to use the land for farming. It's just everywhere. It's quite horrific, actually. So we really wanted to work with the communities in these two environments to explore what kind of interventions might help to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment. Provision of bins. Relatively straightforward. Encouraging people to use them. Teaching people how to use them. How to separate waste for recycling. And then the chain up, so you've got a full bin. So then what do you do? What happens to all the stuff in the bin? So maybe you've separated out your plastics, but what do you do with all the non-recyclable waste? So it's an enormous problem, but we're working with different stakeholders in the waste disposal process if you like. In Sylhet, we're working with city councillors, we've got the support of the mayor who is very keen to improve the situation in Sylhet. So we'll have the opportunity to recommend infrastructure changes as part of the project. We're also looking at how small scale social enterprises can operate recycling initiatives. How they can secure funding for that? We'll also be running some focus groups and community consultations, and doing some participatory mapping to identify pollution hotspots. And hopefully, by mapping the hotspots that will help us to map some potential solutions.

Anna Rose: But clearly, that's only working at one site of the problem?

Cressida Bowyer describes our global challenges as wicked problems.

Cressida Bowyer: These global wicked problems, they don't have boundaries, you know, they don't stop at the border between countries, and that's why we have to have global efforts to address these global problems. Climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, what you call the big three, current global -- I think it's completely OK to call them crises. This is why it's so important to make sure that the research isn't just happening from the top down. We can keep measuring things, and I'm not saying there isn't any value in measuring things, but we also need to really seriously start thinking about applied research and finding solutions and working with people in different environments to start talking about what solutions are going to work and what solutions aren't going to work. There's an urgency now. You know, we know that if we don't change our ways as far as plastic waste goes, that I think plastic pollution is predicted to double by 2030 and it's already bad. And you know, similarly, in reaching the climate action targets, getting to net-zero by 2050, it's about how we're going to do that.

Anna Rose: This November, governments from around the world will gather in Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in which collaboration on the international scale will help set the agenda for facing these crises in years to come. The University of Portsmouth and its Revolution Plastics programme will be playing its part.

Cressida Bowyer: One of the things that we'd like to bring to COP26 is how plastic waste contributes to climate change. How addressing plastic waste is a climate action. But then the other thing that we'd like to highlight as part of COP26 is this community based participatory approach and action research. We will be showcasing the creative methodologies that we've used in these projects so far, talking about how we could use those methods to research community resilience and adaptation to climate change and how we can also use those creative methods to motivate climate action. The University and Revolution Plastics are strongly committed to playing a role in the delivery of this net-zero resilient world. We'll be running our own Portsmouth centric COP26 events, but also in Glasgow, highlighting the connections between plastic waste and climate change, and how reducing plastic pollution really goes hand-in-hand with climate action. You know, there are various ways that plastic waste contributes to climate change. One of them is that plastic production and disposal is estimated to account for about 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and that doesn't even include the emissions from that plastic burning we were talking about. Plastic pollution in either an ocean environment or on land or in the community where it's blocking the drainage channels reduces the resilience of those systems to climate change. For instance, flooding – massively exacerbated when plastic pollution is blocking all the drainage channels or, for instance, ecosystem health in the ocean, you know, the ocean is a massive carbon sink. The more we disrupt the ocean ecosystem, the less effective that important carbon sink is going to be. Currently estimated to absorb around 30 per cent of global carbon dioxide.

Anna Rose: There's much more to be done. And although COP26 is an important chance to take action as a planet, it is only the beginning of resolving the complex and interrelated problems our world and its ecosystems are facing.

Cressida Bowyer: Something like 40 per cent of plastic waste is single-use food packaging. Now, that's not necessarily essential where, as you could argue, that having clean, safe, sterile medical supplies is important and sort of a plastic-free world. You know, maybe that's not the way to go. Maybe it's identifying the capacity of the planet to actually properly recycle plastics – essential plastics – but get rid of the non-essential plastics.

Anna Rose: Thanks for joining us for Life Solved. If you want to find out more about research at the University of Portsmouth, go to the website port.ac.uk. We'll be back next Thursday with the first of our COP26 in-focus programmes, where Dr Amitava Roy will look at the road ahead for decarbonising our global energy systems. Catch you then.

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