Battling plastic waste

Members of The Beach Co-Operative, on Muizenberg beach, at their latest clean-up on Tuesday July 25. Scientists and volunteers: Colleen Moloney, Maya Pfaff, Roxanne Oliver, Rushdi Ariefdien, Zintle Sabelani, Paoloa Cappelli, Aaniyah Omardien, founder of The Beach Co-operative and in front, Isabelle Giddy and Samantha Baxter.

If members of the Beach Co-operative have their way, they are going to eliminate plastic not just from the places it ends up, but from its various sources.

The organisation is well on its way to its goal.

“The Beach Co-operative is on a mission to eliminate single-use plastic,” said founder Aaniyah Omardien.

For two years now around New Moon, on spring low tide mornings you will find The Beach Co-operative doing their monthly plastic clean-ups of the intertidal rocky shores at Surfer’s Corner.

It began when Ms Omardien approached Professor Peter Ryan from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for help.

Professor Ryan researched the impacts of ingested plastic on seabirds for his MSc and the evolutionary ecology of buntings in the Tristan archipelago for his PhD.

He has since monitored long-term changes in the amount and composition of marine litter around South Africa since the mid-80s by sampling litter on 50 beaches every five years.

He has written 37 peer-reviewed publications on plastic pollution.

“The problem lies not with plastics, but with the behaviour of plastic users. Education is a priority, but education alone will not solve the problem. We need a multifaceted approach that uses direct incentives, legislation and education to change user behaviour. The Beach Co-operative’s mission is to engage with single use plastics at all points of its supply chain: remove it from the beach, refuse it when making purchases, work with brands and companies who want to use less plastic, and encourage manufacturers to redesign plastic packaging with a circular economy in mind,” Professor Ryan said.

“South Africa is a major culprit when it comes to waste plastic entering the sea,” Ms Omardien explains.

A 2015 study found that South Africa was the 11th worst country worldwide when it came to plastic pollution in the ocean, due to the combination of a high per capita use of plastic, and a low proportion of refuse that ended up being recycled or disposed of appropriately, she said.

At the first clean-up in March 2015, 758 litter items were collected, filling 12 large refuse bags, from the first 130m of rocky shore.

“Monthly clean-ups since then have yielded an average of 360 items weighing about 5kg, after being washed and dried,” she said.

The amount and type of litter varies greatly from month to month. “Litter loads spike after the first winter rains flush the Cape Flats wetlands, and when wave action strips away much of the sand in the area, exposing buried litter,” she explains.

Because most plastics float, Ms Omardien said the group expected plastic items to be less common in the intertidal zone than on the adjacent sandy beach, where they make up 97% of litter items.

“However, almost 80% of all intertidal debris is made of plastic. Some items are snagged in seaweeds or among mussels, a few are used as sunshades by sea urchins, and others are eaten by sea anemones,” she said.

However, she said that perhaps the most surprising finding is how plastic bags become filled with sand, even through the smallest of holes, forming solid, brick like structures that are soon colonised by a wide range of marine organisms. Apart from this being Plastic Free July globally, there have also been two recent conferences focused on marine conservation, Ms Omardien said: the South African Marine Science Symposium (SAMSS) and the African Marine Waste Conference. The former, she said, acknowledging that plastic is a major threat to our marine environment; and the latter developing a strategy for addressing this problem.

The Beach Co-operative has received seed funding from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and is using this funding to engage with consumers and restaurant owners and managers to help them understand their role in reducing and eliminating The Beach Co-Operative’s biggest bugbear: single use plastic items found on the beaches.

“This understanding will help create more sustainable choices along the chain of custody, and will help create a demand for reducing plastic packaging,” Ms Omardien said.

The Beach Co-Operative team has grown from its beginnings in 2015 as a volunteer beach clean up led by Ms Omardien and Charmaine Adams, to having additional professional researchers and consultants on board which include Nicola Jenkin, Camila Budden, Wendy Engel and Ceinwen Smith, who have been working hard at understanding where single use plastic comes from, and how we can reduce and or eliminate the apparant dependency.

vida e caffe Muizenberg at Surf Emporium, Muizenberg, have heeded the call for more sustainable solutions, and implemented a two-day trial for alternatives to plastic straws, individual sweet wrappers and plastic coffee cup lids.

Natasha Capes, Marketing and Event Coordinator for vida e caffe Muizenberg, said: “The ocean is our business too, it is in our interest to have Muizenberg beach healthy and clean for our customers to surf and enjoy, before coming in for a hot drink or satisfying snack.”

The Beach Co-operative has also approached the hospitality industry and has begun interviewing Fair Trade Tourism members to better understand their business and how they can make a difference regarding plastic packaging in their industry. “Furthermore, we hope to work in two other cities, with researchers, to clean designated beaches in Port Elizabeth and Durban; and to work with brands and companies that want to drive change regarding their sustainability in the reduction or elimination of single use plastic,” Ms Omardien said.

John Duncan, Senior Manager: Marine Programme, WWF-SA, said: “Plastic has become such a prevalent part of our lives and yet very few of us consider what happens to it after we have used it. The reality is that it doesn’t disappear and unless properly recycled or disposed of can create major ecological problems. The Beach Collective’s work is helping us to understand how consumer’s behaviour around plastic impacts on our coastal environments and what we as individual consumers can do to start making a change in our daily lives.”

On Tuesday, July 25, Ms Omardien issued an invite to anyone keen to join their work. “It’s new moon again and that means the tides are at their extreme, and we are able to clean the rocks and explore the rock pools. So come down and join us and help make a difference.”

The group meets in the corner on the rocks – they are easily identified with their yellow bags and white buckets.