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21 Apr 2018

Booming tides of change – bid to cut down on plastic pollution

DUNCAN GUY AND ARTHI GOPI (THE INDEPENDENT ON SATURDAY) Picture: IT’S THE LAST STRAW: Drinking straws are becoming a no-no as people become conscious of the threat plastic poses to marine life.

DURBAN – Booms and straws represent the small steps being taken to reduce Durban’s plastic pollution.

The booms are being installed across rivers as litter catchers that trap floating garbage, while the straws are becoming a “no-no” as people become conscious of the threat plastic poses to marine life and choose to forego sipping drinks through straws.

This week will see the installation of a new litter-catching boom over the Ohlanga River, which is one of 17 that enters the ocean within eThekwini Municipality.

It will join the existing five on the Mngeni River and its tributaries, which are initiatives of the Duzi Umngeni Conservation Trust and others, in trapping floating litter.

Old plastic bottles then go to recycling plants and the remainder to landfill sites.

However, behind the scenes it’s a boom with a difference – one that is to be installed and managed by a private investor in the Durban Green Corridor project, a non-profit organisation that aims to “catch as much litter before it gets too late and to encourage communities to be aware of the problem”, says environmental project manager Nompilo Buthelezi.

The idea of placing it there was born while Andrew Fraser, chairperson of the Upper uMhlanga Security Trust, was walking on the beach after a rainstorm and noticing how much litter lay strewn about.

“It seemed to me that maybe we had better stop this at its source,” Fraser told The Independent on Saturday.

So he went exploring to areas upriver, like the Choppas Town informal settlement above Blackburn Village.

Service delivery is often weak in such places when it comes to solid waste removal, compounding the problem of plastic pollution that broader society, bent on consumerism, promotes.

Conscious that his organisation had branched out from being one that dealt with security and also addressed humanitarian and environmental issues, he contacted the DGC project.

It led to his security organisation raising funds to become the DGC’s first private investor.

“It seemed such an inexpensive solution for a great upswing,” Fraser said.

Adviser to the DGC, Steve Cohen, said there were indirect benefits for litter-catching boom investors “such as those in the tourism industry who will benefit from cleaner beaches and open spaces”.

“Other companies may use the project to off-set negative impacts of their products on the environment, such as fast-moving consumer goods companies and drinks brand owners whose single-use products are widely seen littered on the beach.”

Then there is the benefit of association with the small and growing international market for “ocean plastic”, he said. This is bought at a premium price by companies that want to demonstrate their positive impact on the planet, through products such as the Adidas running shoe constructed with “ocean plastic”.

“I expect our litter boom project to start tapping into this market in the future,” he said.

Cohen said the DGC would help establish booms and train staff.

DGC’s Buthelezi has seen from experience that the litter load collected at a boom after an average rain shower amounts to “seven bags of 30kg each”.

That contributes to the national annual estimate of between 8 and 12 million tons, ranking South Africa as the 11th highest contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean, according to DCG.

Next on her organisation’s to-do list is to ramp up its awareness campaign.

Cohen said the problem of plastic pollution was particularly significant in informal settlements.

“The city’s system and resources are just not coping, for whatever reason, with solid waste.

“It’s especially a problem in informal areas.

“On the other hand, it’s to do with our consumer society.

“Plastic packaging has escalated dramatically over the years.

“The issue is that we are using a material that lasts forever for a single-use activity, like drinking a cooldrink.”

Cohen hopes to also see stormwater drains that empty into the sea set up with litter catchers, not to mention other waterways, especially the canals leading into the harbour.

Jone Porter, education director at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research, stressed the importance of maintenance at the booms.

Failure to empty them could impede the flow of water, which would have knock-on effects, she said.

She compared the process with that used to rid waters of invasive alien water hyacinth, adding that plastic waste had more potential economic value because it could be recycled.

Porter also celebrated the small step achieved through the campaign against plastic straws.

“I have seen that the ‘no-straw’ campaign in Durban has snowballed,” said Porter, praising restaurants that had joined the international movement to stop supplying single- use straws.

Known as “one less straw”, or the “the last plastic straw”, the campaign by the US-based Plastic Pollution Coalition has garnered thousands of pledges from around the world.

On a poster at the door to Circus Circus at North Beach, the message reads: “Together let’s keep the ocean clean one less straw at a time. Please join us in removing straws from our restaurants. If you would like a straw, please ask your waitron.”

Similarly, Arts Café, RocoMamas in uMhlanga and Wimpy outlets nationwide are doing away with plastic straws.

Porter, a former school teacher who became involved in community conservation through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, said she was always inspired by small changes.

“I started off trying to do everything and ended up getting depressed about the planet. Now I have learned that the small things are special.

“Many small things build up to one big thing.”