Let’s grumble about trash. It’s something about life here that irritates me. It’s a big problem and of course, not unique to South Africa. But while in America the focus is generally on landfill capacity and increasing recycling, here they have those same problems together with a serious and highly visible litter problem.
I’ve thought long and hard about this one, read some news articles, and listened to talk radio discussing how to solve it. Is it a problem of culture and norms, a governance problem, or a public and environmental health issue? “That department isn’t enforcing the law,” while, “These people don’t even care about their community.” I’ve even been told that people think littering is OK because “it gives people jobs.” The talk and the finger pointing goes round and round, but of course the answer is that it is a problem on every front in need of multiple solutions.
In our first months here I paid a lot of attention to litter during my regular walks around town after dropping the kids off at school. One day, in an industrial area with a lot of truck traffic, I found a municipal sanitation worker in an orange vest collecting litter. What a daunting task as the refuse went on for many kilometers alongside that road. She could have spent the whole day cleaning up one spot! I walked with her a while and picked up cans, bottles, and packaging to add to her sack. She was baffled and delighted but didn’t speak English so our conversation was limited. I wanted to ask her, “How do you feel when you see people throwing trash out their windows?” and, “Do you and your family behave differently because you know what it takes to clean this up?”
On a different day I watched a man pull over in his car, get out not far from a trash can, walk over to the river, and throw in his plastic food sack filled with who knows what. Into the river. The fact that he didn’t even look around to see if anyone was watching him spoke volumes. Another walker had noticed it too and when our eyes met, all we could do was shake our ends with despair.
The above story happened at the Msunduzi river which runs through our city.
Much like our hometown’s Red River, this one flows a mucky brown on account of the soil type here – in and of itself not a sign of pollution, but also not one that would be very appealing for swimming. It’s still the location for much recreational paddling and picnicking though, as well as an important municipal water source. I can’t help noticing the trash that clutters its banks.
You may remember this post where I mentioned the forward-thinking legislation that requires vendors to charge for plastic sacks. I’m sure that law makes a positive difference overall, but there is still so much plastic around. As a child we searched for “sea glass”- a treasure you might come across on the shores of Lake Superior; nowadays it’s plastic big and small, and it’s everywhere! Even in this remote stretch of the coast where seemingly pristine dunes climb to the sky and unfold as far as the eye can see, we were amazed that small bits of plastic were embedded with the sand almost everywhere you looked.
During our turtle tour, we learned about how turtles and other creatures confuse plastic bags for their usual food of jelly fish. With small barbs in their throats to aid digestion, there is little hope of successfully regurgitating a plastic sack they may have swallowed accidentally. So when we found ourselves here:
It was all I could do not to shout that tale of woe to the other tourists gathered at Cape Town’s harbor when I spotted this jelly fish and bag floating side by side.
To be fair there are areas where the highways are NOT lined with trash and some public areas where workers manage to keep on top of the litter. There are also many beautifully maintained hotel fronts, malls, and school grounds. But the fact that we notice those areas as special or abnormal is indication enough that finding an area litter-free is rare. “Wow, look how clean this area is!” is a rather unfortunate compliment, don’t you think?
One challenge is that this can’t be fixed with a feel good mobilization of one-time beach, field, or stream cleaner-uppers. It takes a whole lot of commitment at every level to begin the kind of transformation needed here- public service messaging, enforcement, legislation to curb packaging and increase recycling. My generation remembers the “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” campaign as a backdrop to our childhood. Was America headed down a similar path as South Africa? 30 years after Woodsy the Owl’s message, has our trajectory changed for good? Unlike the USA in the 70s and 80s, South Africans are facing a whole host of pressing problems that threaten the very survival of their nation and fellow citizens. Is it reasonable that they should be tackling litter too?
On our recent trip we witnessed something we hope was a glimpse of the mindset change on the horizon. In the national park at the Cape of Good Hope, we were part of a long line of cars backed up at the entrance to a crowded parking area. As our car creeped forward we watched the smokers in the car behind us toss their cigarettes out the window. A woman in the car behind them got out, came up to their window, and unleashed a tirade upon them. There were a whole lot of words I can’t repeat but the scolding she gave them, “…and to think you’re in a National Park…” was admirable. As she stormed back to her vehicle, they did in fact get out and pick up their butts.
It offered a great opportunity for our family to discuss how we might have responded and what role individuals can play in tackling such an overwhelming issue. We agreed that emulating her word choice and manner could backfire, escalate things, and even be dangerous. But I think it’s fair to say we were all inspired by her bravery to imagine ourselves, here or back in America, as capable of confrontation and not just head-shaking bystanders.