For a week in September, 630 adults and 1200 school learners rolled up their sleeves to pick up trash. The result: 15 tons of rubbish was cleaned off beaches, streets, and out of estuaries in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropole. This remarkable figure was also boosted by the fact that Sustainable Seas Trust began a cleanup programme the week before the International Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday the 15th, mobilising schools and businesses from the Tuesday prior. The idea was to tackle trash at its source, in the places we live, work, learn and play. Over 800 people participated in this initiative alone, more than 300 bags were filled.
The question people might ask, though, is: ‘Why bother with another cleanup?’ There’ll only be more trash tomorrow; the onslaught of flow into the sea seems endless.
That might be accurate: cleanups are reactionary solutions, and don’t deal with the source of the issues; there are many contributing factors to our waste problem. But besides picking up the litter itself, there is another vitally important factor in these cleanups: the data.
On its cleanups, SST took along data collectors. What they found is a predominance of the following items, in this order: cigarette butts, sweet wrappers, plastic and metal bottle tops, as well as straws and plastic bags. They also found a huge number of small, indistinguishable bits of plastic and glass, signs of how things break and degrade across the environment.
‘An inventory of the litter or trash within an area says a lot about who utilises the area and for what purposes,’ says SST’s Head of Research Wade Lane. ‘With that understanding, we can motivate for effective and efficient action to optimize results. For example, this week, we recorded a plethora of cigarette butts on school premises, condoms in parks and glass fragments from drug paraphernalia on public beaches. These not only highlight the growing environmental issue, but also several social issues that need to be addressed. We can then advise schools to promote awareness campaigns, appeal to the local council to provide surveillance in public areas as well as better signage and, of course, bins.’
Being able to counter specific issues with targeted solutions means many things: private citizens can change their behavior by, for instance, using reusable shopping bags, not buying sweets in individual wrappers or refusing straws in restaurants. Municipalities can place pressure on restaurants and other businesses to stop serving sweets wrapped in plastic wrappers or wrapping takeaways in single-use plastics or polystyrene; they can be motivated to find organic alternatives. Nelson Mandela Bay city council can, with this information, find more targeted waste-management solutions so next year it can win the Greenest Municipality Award – this year it was the second runner-up, a notable achievement. If the municipality had access to this information about what trash was found where, it means it can decide where to put out bins that are most likely to be optimally used, which could then minimise waste lying around the streets and drop resultant cleanup costs.
Cleanups are important, they take potentially damaging waste out of the environment, but the data harvested from them is the real gold, fodder for long-term solutions. It’s the vital key that can lead to smarter decisions, as citizens, as businesses and as local government, that means the city can be proactive about waste management, rather than reactive.
Sustainable Seas Trust is a PE-based NGO focused on sustainability and poverty alleviation through education. It’s primary project is the African Marine Waste Network. For more on the organization, go to www.sst.org.za