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.


10 thoughts on “Trash

  1. We were just talking about how our childhood anti-pollution movement (give a hoot…) needs a come back. As MN’s snow has melted, the litter strewn along the roadsides (mainly highways) is visible and strikes us as growing worse every year.


  2. This is definitely the time here in Minnesota when poor public behavior over the winter comes to light!
    How is it that your pictures of trash are so beautifully composed, though, Amy? I feel like I could gaze at that first picture forever.
    I think starting with the kids when it comes to good community living is the best way to start. And hiring people to educate as well as pick up trash, since people need work so badly.


  3. Dear Amy, Thanks for another thoughtful post! Litter has always bothered me and I have been known to go up to people who litter and talk with them. Sometimes that hasn’t been the best idea given how defensive people are! Thanks for giving us so many different perspectives on your year!

    Wondering if you are following Prince’s death. Mpls has been totally focused on it this past weekend. What an incredible person he was!

    Hugs to you all! Kristen

    On Sun, Apr 24, 2016 at 2:12 PM, sevennorthdakotas wrote:

    > sevennorthdakotas posted: “ 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 recycli” >


  4. Great ruminations again, Amy! Thanks.

    In my mind one of the basic problems is the fact that in a country like SA most people don’t see a public place as theirs. Since Government, power and wealth, all things important tend to be ‘privatized’ by the elites, people are in fact quite disenfranchised, whatever the Constitution says. Thus, there is no such thing as ‘our’ river or ‘our’ curbside. It’s all ‘theirs’, and they don’t care about us, the common man…, which, by the way, the powerful and rich REALLY don’t.

    Same thing in a city slum in a rich country, where, presumably, at least some of the powerful and rich do care, if not enough.

    Hardly anybody litters at home or in the backyard of their brother, sister, cousin or friend.

    I’m not saying this attitude is rational, since it does in no way hurt the powerful…


  5. Hi again friends!! Thank you for your poignant pictures, thoughtful questions and important observations about litter! Azahna and Ayden have been bummed that”ditch cleaning” with their 4H club has been postponed twice now. That means they ave been disappointed NOT to spend hours picking up trash. I wonder if SA has a similar adopt a highway program? Somehow seeing the name on a sign of a group they belong to next to a few miles of road and gathering in community to clean said area has made a positive difference in how they view trash. One idea? Love the story where someone responded well to a “chewing out” over the cigarette butts…I give credit to the one who cared enough to express disapproval and even more to the one who did the right thing in the end. Blessings as you wind down your amazing year friends!! There’s a baby here to meet you and her family ready to welcome you home!! 🙂


    • “O seu trabalho é reconhecido pela revista americana Rolling Stone, que lhe concedeu o 18º lugar dos melhores guitarristas da historia em 2003[1] e 72º em 2011[2] e também foi reconhecido como o melhor guitarrista dos últimos 30 anos (1980-2010) numa votação dos ouvintes, no site, da rádio britânica BBC. ”Vai me dizer que é quem? O SLASH?! AHHsAHAHAPesquiAar antes de dar uma opinião fecal não custa nada.


  6. Hi Amy! And hi to Scott and Simon and Elsa Ruth!
    Thanks for another great post. I was distressed with litter when we were in Ireland too. I went out by
    myself a few times on roadsides near our house and picked up litter. Crazy American. Fortunately the beaches were not too bad and we did search for and find sea glass. Notably when we went to Norway for a week we were astonished at how clean it was! Definitely some cultural influences.
    Can’t wait for you guys to come back! Spring is coming on apace – tulips in bloom, trees are greening up; Dennis mowed lawn the first time yesterday. Only 2 or 3 months till you came back! I know re-entry will be tricky and you’ll have mixed feelings but know that we are very much looking forward to your return!! Love and hugs to all!


  7. i love it when watching Naruto this song plays at the reeemebmr moments and sad moments and love moments and just the special moments best back round music ever!!!


  8. Well is there eurpeans Ottoman lands want to return? Or why the Italians back to the Roman state roma? Current or why not speak Turkish Bulgarian Old Bunrigaal? Or why the Russians do not give up land Khazar empire? Or. . . . . . . . . . Guess you're not the most reasonable person around are u?


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