Milnerton beach in Cape Town offers visitors a sublime view of the city, from Table Mountain to sweeping views of the city bowl and the iconic Greenpoint Stadium. Considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, this view showcases the best the city has to offer.
However, look beneath your feet and this view is tainted. Discarded shoes, plastic, clothes and even mattresses litter the beach, particularly after stormy weather. The proximity of this stretch of coastline to Cape Town harbour and Paarden Eiland industrial area make it a dumping ground for the city’s water-borne litter.
Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is reaching such a critical point that according to UN secretary general António Guterres, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. A 2018 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report showed that South Africans, on average, use between 30kg to 50kg of plastic per person per year. Although this yearly consumption is lower than the average 130kg used in places such as Europe and the USA, South Africa is the 11th largest contributor globally to plastic pollution in the ocean. A lot needs to be done to tackle this pressing problem and a number of enterprising initiatives in Cape Town are doing just that.
Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium is at the forefront of tackling the problem, with a range of projects and initiatives to involve the public. In 2017 they chose plastic pollution as one of their key sustainability focus areas and they have done impressive work in this area, from outreach programmes, beach clean-ups and a 2019 summit called ‘Plastic knows no borders’. The aquarium is also working with a number of national retailers in South Africa, to phase out the sale of plastic shopping bags over the next few years.
There are a host of Cape Town non-profit organisations, from CleanSeas, Sea the Bigger Picture, to Beach Co-Operative, that are working to fight marine plastic pollution. Amongst the range of work they do, they regularly organise beach clean-ups. Groups of volunteers can be found on any particular Saturday morning, armed with black bin bags and gloves, removing bags full of rubbish. A recent clean up at the mouth of the Black River in Cape Town resulted in a staggering 128kgs of plastic bottles and rubbish being collected in just three hours.
Of particular interest are the local surfers who are involved in pollution activism. Big wave surfer Frank Solomon is an example. In November 2018, Frank took part in a coastal clean-up tour, travelling from Durban to Cape Town. Along the way, he met with NGOs, marine biologists and local experts who work tirelessly to clean up the ocean. John McCarthy is another surfer who is actively involved in tackling plastic pollution. He is about to launch a conservation initiative called Ocean Child Odyssey, educating South African youth about the environmental value of the coastline.
But Cape Town’s ocean plastic problems should not be left to the hard work and goodwill of local non-profit organisations and individuals.
Plastic Free July, a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution, was celebrated in South Africa this year, with calls by the Western Cape Government for citizens to give up or refuse as much single use plastic as possible. The SA Department of Environmental Affairs is considering a total ban on all single-use plastics and is currently in the process of consulting with various parties to determine if a total ban will be the right move.
However, plastic bags in South Africa, dubbed as ‘national flowers, because they can be seen flapping in the wind, caught on fences and bushes, provide an important source of income to the government. A levy on plastic bags was introduced in June 2004, in the hope of cutting litter and encouraging reuse. The levy is now bringing in a small, dependable income for the National Treasury, generating R241.3m in 2018.
South Africa may still be a way off from prohibiting the sale and use of single-use plastic items, but the tireless work of activists and individuals is constantly pushing this agenda in the right direction.
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