Why it matters
For starters, 80% of the oxygen we breathe comes from plankton and kelp in the oceans. Like all sea life, these micro-organisms are threatened by plastic waste, particularly microfibres and microparticles.
Secondly, that plastic ultimately ends up on our plates. Wildlife filmmaker and scientist Dr. Richard Kirby aka The Plankton Pundit posted a video of plankton ingesting a plastic microfibre, capturing the moment plastic enters the food chain. From that point on, plankton is eaten by smaller fish who are eaten by bigger fish and shellfish who are eaten by us. A 2017 study in Belgium showed that shellfish lovers can consume up to 11 000 pieces of microplastic a year.
Marine health and South Africa
South Africa is blessed with some 4 000 kilometres of coastline which gives us a big responsibility to manage it sustainably, as President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised at the 2018 G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Canada in June. On World Oceans Day in the same year, the Department of Environmental Affairs outlined what action it is taking to protect the oceans around South Africa. This includes employment and education programmes such as Working for the Coast, the Recycling Enterprise Support Programme and searching for alternatives to single-use plastics and microbeads in cosmetics.
A month later, in July 2018, the South African Government launched the Thuma Mina campaign, which calls on the public and industry to become involved in saving the environment. Taking its cue from India’s Green Good Deeds campaign, one of Thuma Mina’s initiatives is to combat littering.
By far the most plastic in the oceans are carried there from the land by rivers and wind. In South Africa, rivers in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and around Cape Town have the highest ‘inputs of plastics’ into the marine environment, according to The Ocean Cleanup. Putting an end to littering will go a long way toward keeping plastic off our beaches and out of our waters.
How to be a mindful consumer
- Declare the office or your workplace a single-use-plastics-free zone. This includes plastic straws, water and cooldrink bottles, takeaway cups, disposable cutlery and plastic shopping bags. Instead, encourage employees and colleagues to use the water cooler or reusable water bottles with a built-in filter, bring lunch in reusable containers and use reusable coffee cups and canvas shopping bags.
- Put a recycling programme in place and educate everyone on how to use it. At present, only 9% of all plastic is recycled worldwide. The good news, though, is that the number of recyclers that will collect your recyclables curbside is growing in South Africa. Some, like Cape Town’s New Earth Projects, will do it for free. Going one step further, Johannesburg has begun to roll out compulsory recycling.
- Swap bubble wrap and clingfilm for recyclable alternatives, such as shredded paper and fabric wraps.
- Quit beauty products that contain plastic microbeads. They are particularly common in scrubs, exfoliators and toothpaste. Look for the biodegradable equivalent, such as ground apricot pips, walnut shells and rice.
- Cover drain covers with traps to prevent smaller items such as straws and bottle caps from going down the drain and into the oceans.
Great causes to support
- Take part in a beach or river clean-up. Clean C organises regular beach, river and community clean-ups around Cape Town and KZN Beach Cleanup arranges monthly cleanups in Durban. Otherwise, contact the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) that organises events around the country through their regional branches.
- Support bans of single-use plastic bags. Did you know that South Africans alone use eight billion single-use shopping bags a year? Join the Two Oceans Aquarium which is encouraging people, schools, retailers and business to Rethink the Bag and pledge to give them up. The similarly named Rethink Bags is an Oudtshoorn-based initiative that creates jobs by teaching women to make attractive, reusable shopping fruit-and-veg bags.
- Make safe, sustainable seafood choices when shopping or dining out. Store SASSI’s FishMS number (079 499 8795) or download the SASSI app to check whether a species is on the green, orange or red list before buying it.
Who to follow
- The African Marine Waste Network (AMWN) was established in 2016 and creates a network for all African countries along the continent’s coast and island states. It is an initiative of the Sustainable Seas Trust and partners include Plastics SA, PETCO, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and the United Nations Environment Programme.
- Through its centres in South Africa, the United States and Seychelles, the Save Our Seas Foundation supports research, education and conservation projects around the world. Their shark education centre in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, is a great way to teach children about our oceans through beach outings, games, film and even baking.
A highly-experienced freelance writer with a background in hard news and magazine feature-writing, as well corporate communications management.