Protecting our plastic planet

Hayley McLellan holding what Bob the turtle pooped out, including balloons, some still attached to their string.

Have you ever wondered what happens to balloons, bottles, plastic bags and other waste that gets whisked away by the south-easter. Where does it go?

Hayley McLellan of the Two Oceans Aquarium has seen first-hand the devastating effects of plastic on wildlife. This environmental campaigner spoke about the problem as part of the Wednesday talks at Kirstenbosch.

Did you know that every piece of plastic ever made on this planet still exists today? “Maybe in the future we can whizz it off to plastic planet, but for now we must deal with it,” says Ms McLellan.

She adds that all her campaigning research is based on scientific fact. She stopped using plastic bags nine years ago and is doing just fine.

The audience were shown a picture of a dead wandering albatross found on the remote Midway Attol which is more than 3 000km from any mainland. Its insides were clogged bottle tops and plastic particles. These magnificent seabirds have the largest wingspan of any bird. Of the 21 albatross species, 19 are threatened or endangered.

Holding a container of seawater filled with micro plastic, Ms McLellan says one of the threats to this species and other birds, including the endangered penguin, is that they eat or become tangled in plastic and other debris floating in the ocean. Mistaking plastic for food, they often feed it to their young.

The Two Oceans Aquarium, which has a marine animal disentanglement programme, has encountered turtles, penguins, dolphins and other creatures snared by cooldrink bottles, fishing line, box band strap, plastic bags, balloons and other materials. One of these creatures is Bob, a female green turtle found at De Hoop Nature Reserve in 2014.

“When she first arrived at the aquarium, Bob didn’t eat, instead pooping out balloons and plastic bags. Bob is doing well these days and forms part of our new Ocean exhibit,” says Ms McLellan.

She says there is an estimated 150 tons of plastic particles in our ocean. The World Economic Forum estimates that the equivalent of one garbage truck of waste goes into our oceans every minute. By 2050 this will be equal to four trucks a minute. “This gets into fish and eventually into us. Should we continue business as usual, in 2050 there’ll be more plastic than fish by weight,” says Ms McLellan.

Solutions:

There are thousands of informal waste collectors in South Africa making a living from waste.

“A paradigm shift is required where we begin to view our trash as treasure and create a circular economy,” says Ms McLellan.

The circular economy is growing in Europe at the moment, and it’s about a shift in perspective. She explained that circular business models provide a new way to deal with scarcity of resources, such as fossil fuels, raw materials and fresh water. It’s all about reducing. Recycling is only part of the solution, not the answer.

The Two Oceans Aquarium has six simple suggestions for individuals to assist in reducing plastic:

* Rethink the bag: launched at the aquarium in 2011, Ms McLellan says according to research conducted in 2010, approximately eight billion plastic shopping bags are used in South Africa each year, 96 percent of which end up in landfill after being used for about 20 minutes or less. Many find their way to our oceans where some are swallowed by animals who suffer an agonising, slow death.

* Bust your need for balloons: balloon releases can end up causing agonising and unnecessary death to animals.

* Bin your butts and kick the flick habit: cigarettes contain numerous toxins which seep into soil and groundwater. They are not biodegradable.

* Tap into the right water source: Cape Town has good tap water, do not buy bottled water. You are being duped by marketing into thinking it is a healthier option.

* Straws suck: they are used for about 30 seconds and fall into the top 10 litter items on beaches and can end up in the gullet of animals causing suffocation. Say no when waitrons offer them.

* Cut a loop, save a life – no noose is good news: before recycling, cut anything which comes in a circle, from box band straps to cool drink can separators. Ms McLellan also advises people to walk the talk – if others see you doing good, hopefully they will a too.

* For details about the free Wednesday talks at Kirstenbosch, contact Cathy Abbott on 021 465 6440, 072 201 2535, or cathya@wol.co.za

* International Coastal Clean-up Day is on Saturday September 17. Two Oceans Aquarium is asking volunteers to meet at Soetwater Environmental Education Centre, Kommetjie, to collect litter between 10am and noon.

Call 021 418 3823 for more information.