Zandvlei Trust

The Last Straw.

(Extract article from the February 2011 Newsletter)

Sustainable living is "made of little changes to our lifestyle that don't cost us anything and can save the planet," said Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italian Environmental Minister, as she confirmed that a ban on non-biodegradable, single-use plastic bags will take effect on 1 January 2011, in Italy.

In May 2003, South Africa set the pace by banning thinner plastic bags as well as imposing levies on thicker ones. These measures have not had the anticipated results for protection of the environment and the levies appear to be unaccounted for.

One of the sad things about our modern ‘disposable’ lifestyle is that plastic, which is a very useful, short-term convenience, is turning into a massive long-term problem.

Plastic is used everywhere in some form or another. Foodstuffs are one of the biggest culprits; our short-term gratification, in the form of fast foods and drinks are wrapped or contained in plastic and then put into plastic packets for us to take home. Often products like meat and milk are first put into two plastic packets at the till point, besides their own wrapping. At home we discard the plastic wrapping into our plastic rubbish bag. All this plastic is derived from petroleum products and designed to last forever!

Our landfills, beaches, oceans, catchment areas, open spaces, roads and fences are all covered in plastic packaging which consists of expendable products that have virtually no value at the end of their useful life. Just go and look at the area around Sunrise Circle after one of those Sunday market days. The area is covered in plastic packets and wrapping, blowing into the sea and wrapped around bushes. This, in turn, has to be cleaned up by council workers or special teams of cleaners who could be better employed. Also, by the time the clean-up team arrives, much of that plastic has already blown into the sea.

At present only about 5% of plastic that we produce is being recycled. About 50% ends up in landfill sights. The rest is unaccounted for. This is where the problem lies - much of that 45% is ending up in our oceans.

Current research shows that there are five massive oceanic gyres where plastic is accumulating. Two are off Africa - one in the Atlantic Ocean, on our West coast and one in the Indian Ocean, on our East coast. Scientists say that fish are being poisoned by plastic and predict that soon we may have to test fish to ascertain whether they are fit for human consumption. These frightening predictions are based on the fact that researchers have found plastic derivatives in the stomachs of many of the fish that they have surveyed during their research.

Dave Chameides, on his website, says the following about The 5 Gyres Project, in which he is studying plastic pollution of the world’s oceans:
“Dr. Marcus Erikson and his partner, Anna Cummins, along with other scientists, have traversed the oceans, not once, but several times, to study what is actually happening out there. And what they found is truly disturbing. While the ‘plastic soup’ is not concentrated, meaning you wouldn’t be able to see it from the air, once you get into the water, it can’t be missed. Thousands of tiny, confetti-like, pieces of plastic filling otherwise pristine waters and waiting to be ingested.

And that’s just what happens. Petroleum based plastics break down, never completely, but over time they get smaller and smaller. As they do, fish and birds eat them and carry them forward. Some of the animals die. Some live on. And some are eaten by larger animals. As bigger fish eat smaller fish, the plastic particles and the myriad cancer-causing PCBs* that they attract from unburnt fuel, move up the food chain, and eventually onto our plates.” 
* Poly Chlorinated Biphenyl.

Marcus, Anna and their colleagues have set out on the 5 Gyres project, a series of voyages to study the five major gyres in the world, most of them in the North and South Atlantic. They were recently in Cape Town and gave a presentation at the Two Oceans Aquarium to local officials and scientists on how to deal with this problem and how to make people aware of what they are finding.

What can you do?

  • Think about these facts - and inform others - challenge yourself to do as much as you can in your daily life to reject plastic.
  • Look for eco-friendly products and use them - even if they cost slightly more.
  • Recycle.
  • Do not use plastic straws. They are non-biodegradable and totally unnecessary.

‘Together we can’.

Peter Kruger.


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