Renewed concerns about plastic litter in the ocean

By Shahied Joseph

Kayakers paddling from Three Anchor Bay to the lighthouse at the harbour wall last Sunday said they were so shocked at the amount of plastic litter in the ocean, that they collected some of it as they returned to their starting point.

Picture by Steven Benjamin. It’s clear that the seas are littered.

Lori Lake and Karen Watkins – who works for Atlantic Sun’s sister paper, Constantiaberg Bulletin – said the amount of plastic was “appalling”.

“The water was crystal clear so you could also see plastic bags floating below the surface and then the dolphins swimming amongst all our trash.

“It made me feel helpless, angry and deeply ashamed to be human,” said Ms Lake.

“I also want to know what the city of Cape Town is doing about the problem, and what has happened to their plans to place booms across the rivers and nets over the storm water drains to prevent our waste flowing into the sea.”

Ms Watkins added: “We often pick up litter – plastic bottles, shoes, chip packets, shopping bags, concrete sacking, etc. In Gordon’s Bay I picked up a wooden box that once held ashes. It was inscribed with a plaque.

“Along the harbour wall was the worst.”

Kayakers get close to the litter.

NSRI CEO Dr Cleeve Robertson said he had seen litter approximately 100 meters wide, stretching from Robben Island to Camps Bay beach.

“It’s an environmental issue all around the world, and it directly impacts animals like turtles who think it’s (plastic packets) a jelly fish and eat it and then they starve to death because it blocks their intestines.

“At a micro level most people don’t realise that plastics eventually don’t break down to micro particles and if you eat fish from the sea where there’s pollution those micro particles become incorporated into your muscle and tissues and the long-term effect of that is not really well documented, but we know that plastics absorb toxins so it’s possible in future that there could be a high rate of cancer because of the plastic inside you,” he said.

He added that this rubbish also posed a threat to motor boats and to the tourism industry.

“If you drive over a sheet of plastic with an outboard motor or with a jet ski it will suck the plastic over the water intake for the coolant and the motor could stop and then you are immobilised at sea which is a major safety issue.

“This happened to me a few weeks ago,” he said

“The City doesn’t have a plan to deal with the solid waste or the sewerage waste and I understand it’s a complex problem that they have to deal with. Pollution has knock-on effects and the tourism industry could be compromised.”

The City of Cape Town said the litter in the seas was not a problem unique to these shores and that it was, in fact, a world-wide concern.

“The reasons why plastic are so prolific in oceans are multiple: plastic does not degrade and can remain in circulation in the environment for decades. There are multiple sources of plastic pollution,” the City said in a media statement.

“These may range from litter entering the coastal environment from rivers, as well as storm water systems that act as conduits from extensive catchments, general littering by the public on beaches as well as in wider catchment areas, litter discharged from vessels offshore, as well as plastics entering Cape Town’s waters from foreign countries.

“A survey conducted in 2020 on both the Atlantic and False Bay coastlines revealed that some plastic litter had been produced in Indonesia, and that this litter had ultimately found its way into Cape Town’s waters through strong currents and oceanic movement.”

In 2019 surfer and environmentalist Brett Jordaan founded the PBO Pristine Earth Collective to keep plastic pollution out of our oceans. In 2020 they helped launch @the_litterboom_project in Cape Town which removes about one ton of plastic waste from three rivers – the Black and two Lotus rivers (that feed into Table Bay and Zeekoevlei) – every week.

Early next year they will launch a project on the Atlantic seaboard to fit nets over outlet pipes where most of the litter gets into the sea.

“It will be a costly project because each pipe is a different shape and size and they will need to be cleaned four to five times a day otherwise the nets break. We need to get local businesses on board,” Mr Jordaan said.

Some of the rubbish collected by kayaker and reporter Karen Watkins.