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  • Writer's pictureWorld Cleanup Day / South Africa

Catch it before it reaches the ocean!

How a South African River Catchment Project reduces plastic in our oceans

Did you know that more than 80 percent of litter found in the ocean comes from land-based sources? It’s a problem that often seems insurmountable, but many efforts are being taken to reduce the staggering amount of marine pollution in South Africa.

In their attempt to address this issue, the non-profit company and umbrella organisation for the South African plastics industry, Plastics SA, decided to adopt a collaborative approach to identify sources of pollution and take the necessary action to address this.

“Plastics SA and various other stakeholders came together about four years ago to seek the best solutions to address plastics in the environment and oceans of South Africa,” explains Douw Steyn, the sustainability director of Plastics SA.

Douw Steyn, Sustainability Director of Plastics SA, hands over gumboots to the Inkwazi Isu (Fish Eagle) Project to the Durban South Coast Project Manager, Dr Emmanuel Sakado, on National River Clean-Up Day. The team was cleaning Mbokodweni River at Umbogintwini.

The result of these efforts was the formation of a River Catchment Project across five river catchment areas around South Africa in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. This project brings together government, business, civil society, environmental organisations and Producer Responsibility Organisations (PRO’s), whose role it is to recycle products on behalf of producers.

One such PRO which has come on board in supporting Plastics SA’s initiatives this year is eWASA, the EPR Waste Association of South Africa.

“We identified the River Catchment Project as a prime example of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Regulations in action. Partnering with Plastics SA would be beneficial for our producer members,” explains Adri Spangenberg, the packaging executive at eWASA, a PRO which assists companies in complying with EPR Regulations which place the responsibility of waste management on producers.

“Being part of the initiative is an important deliverable for eWASA, as our EPR obligations are met on many levels. Not only do we take part in river clean-up campaigns but through this project we are able to contribute to job creation and ensure that litter does not end up in the ocean.”

The money eWASA contributes to the campaign is used for the refuse bags which are distributed to the clean-ups and to assist the people in the clean-ups with personal protective equipment.

“Every September we print and make 500,000 bags,” explains John Kieser, the sustainability manager at Plastics SA. “But this year was a tough year. We’ve run out of bags. A lot of our bags and effort went into the East London, Buffalo City area to support the clean-ups in that area. And with the floods in KwaZulu-Natal, we have used up all our bags.”

September is of course a big month as it coincides with International Coastal Cleanup Day as well as World Cleanup Day, on the third Saturday in September.

"But pollution in our oceans is a year-round problem. To create a holistic approach, we must look beyond simply doing clean-up campaigns. We must include waste management; education, training, and awareness; innovation and technology; and litter prevention solutions such as litter booms which catch litter in rivers before they reach the ocean."

Kabelo Phakoe, sustainability project coordinator at Plastics SA.

If you’re just doing a clean-up campaign and not having a river catchment approach, you are cleaning and it doesn’t even have to be tomorrow, just hours after that it’s dirty already.

“It might be dirty because people come and litter at the very spot that you are doing [a clean-up] or waste can be transported through air and wind and water as well. Because of that there needs to be constant action when it comes to pollution because the major reality is that our waste system is broken.”

These litter booms mostly take the form of nets that form a barrier on the surface of the water which collects floating plastic without interfering with the movement of fish and birdlife.

“In some rivers the netting is very successful but that needs to be cleaned basically on a weekly basis,” says Kieser.

While Plastics SA does not physically place and operate these booms, their collaborative approach means they work with organisations like the Litterboom Project which places litterbooms in rivers around South Africa and individuals like Lisa Starr who are undertaking the work on the ground by supplying them with funding, clean-up bags and logistical material.

Lisa Starr has been running a litterboom in the Lourens River in the Western Cape for the past three years which normally involves checking on it every week and clearing it once a month.

“We find a lot of bags, a lot of clothing, bedding, containers, a lot of shoes. Polystyrene is the top offender because rivers are catchment areas so anything which is light and blows is going to get caught in the nearest catchment area. The same with crisp packets and lighters because they’re coming in from the stormwater into the river,” she says.

It’s a job that is often challenging, it is time-consuming, and it is often a very unpleasant job.

And as John Kieser says, “It isn't nice job because the rivers are also a conduit for a lot of sewerage, especially when the rain starts.”

Yet, it’s rewarding to not only clean the rivers when water levels do allow but to re-purpose some of this waste.

“Polystyrene from these river clean ups are collected and recycled into picture frames, cornices and lightweight cement products in South Africa ensuring that it does not land up in rivers through the lack of separation at source at homes,” says Adri Spangenberg.

While this is only a tool that’s helping to catch litter before it reaches the ocean – meaning we need to have better waste management and recycling initiatives in place to deal with litter at the source – people like Phakoe and Kieser who work with the problem on a daily basis will tell you that these initiatives are making a difference.

“From what the City of Cape Town has told me, due to the clean-ups and the removal of alien plants in the Black River area, there has been an increase in flamingos,” Kieser says.

And Starr’s message? “If you see any litter, pick it up because it’s going to end up going into storm water, into the river and then into the ocean and then into you.”

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