On 20 March 2019 we hosted the Home to Ocean “Plastic knows no borders” Summit to share ideas, information and advances that have been made in recent years, when it comes to plastic and plastic in the oceans.

The Summit drew together some of the key role players in the local plastics arena – PlasticsSA, the International Ocean Institute, the V&A Waterfront, The Really Great Material Company, Woolworths, SPAR, Wasteplan, Nude Foods, Shop Zero, Future Kids, Oceano Reddentes, Earth Child, Sea the Future, Sea the Bigger Picture, Redefine Properties, SAFCEI, and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute, among others.

Our line-up of speakers included Lorren de Kock from WWF, Professor Catherina Schenck from UWC, Aaniyah Omardien from The Beach Co-op, Sonja Ray from Prime Plus Packaging, Karoline Hanks of #ICarryMyOwn, Keith Wetmore from Yacht BOAZ, and Hayley McLellan, the Aquarium’s environmental campaigner.

Keynote speakers were the co-founders of the 5 Gyres Institute, Dr Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins. Marcus and Anna first visited the Aquarium in 2010, arriving in Cape Town on board the Sea Dragon having sailed 5 391 kilometres across the South Atlantic Gyre. The aim of their voyage was to produce the first comprehensive snapshot analysis of plastic pollution in each of the globe’s five gyres – they had already found plastic in the North Atlantic Gyre and the Indian Ocean Gyre and went on to sail across the South Pacific Gyre after their Cape Town stopover.

Meeting Marcus and Anna back then inspired not only the Aquarium’s journey into plastic as a focus area for our environmental and sustainability campaigns, but also motivated Hayley McLellan to launch the Rethink the Bag campaign in 2011 and she is now a 5 Gyres ambassador.  

Saving our synthetic seas – state of the science

Marcus was our first speaker of the day and he took us through some of the science, highlighting the research which is now available in a growing number of papers.

Research has confirmed that there are more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tonnes afloat in the oceans.

Courtesy Dr Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute

Contrary to popular belief, there are no “islands” of plastic, but rather a plastic smog covering the oceans. Research has been conducted on the bite marks found on pieces of plastic found in the north Atlantic and some of the animals identified by their bite marks include three species of turtle – loggerhead, green, and hawksbill – and two species of triggerfish including oceanic and gray triggerfish. We know first-hand from our own work just how susceptible turtles are to plastic ingestion.  

Courtesy Dr Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute

The global trend shows that plastic pollution in the oceans has increased dramatically since 1995 and is on an upward trajectory. However, if we were to cut the coastal output of plastic by 20% per year we would reach 1995 levels by 2025.

Courtesy Dr Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute
Courtesy Dr Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute

Below is a suggestion of scalable solutions which would enable us to meet the 2025 goal – as can be seen the most effective solutions are zero waste communities and a circular economy. 

Courtesy Dr Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute

Pathways to solutions

Anna Cummins took to the stage next to discuss some of the solutions available to reduce plastic in our oceans. Anna is convinced that individuals have the power to shift the trend significantly – there are examples of people, including Bea Johnson, who have managed to cut their waste output to a single jar for a year’s worth of waste. Local actions at schools, transforming shops (Nude Foods and Shop Zero are good local examples), holding brands accountable, changing local policy, establishing alternative delivery systems, and transitional materials (e.g. hemp) are some of the areas from which solutions can arise. Anna also referred to TrashBlitz cleanups – these are similar to our Trash Bash events at which we collect data which sheds light on the worst polluting culprits – by item and by brand. 

Courtesy Dr Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute

WWF-SA undertakes a systems approach to the transformation from a linear to a circular economy

WWF-SA is a relative newcomer to the plastic pollution space, but has leapt in enthusiastically. As suggested by Marcus, a circular economy is one of the most impactful ways to dramatically reduce plastic in the oceans. This requires a multi-stakeholder approach which is the route which WWF has adopted. Lorren de Kock, Project Manager for Circular Plastics Economy, outlined the strategy which WWF-SA is implementing which includes working at various levels including policy, business, city and people. By applying a systems approach similar to that used in the SASSI campaign, WWF will ensure that all relevant parties are engaged and challenged to make the changes necessary for the transformation to a circular economy.

Creating awareness one nautical mile at a time

Speaking of the power of individuals, we got to hear Yacht BOAZ owner Keith Wetmore’s inspirational story. Keith bought a yacht in 2014 and, after seeing plastic pollution in Madagascar, committed to using the boat to raise awareness about the issue “one nautical mile at a time”.  

BOAZ has partnered with the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) which has established the African Marine Waste Network which “focuses on preventing marine pollution in Africa at its source, on land. It does this by building networks between government, industry and civil society, and fostering enterprise development; it’s an active platform for collaboration, and resource- and knowledge-sharing within countries and across borders in Africa”. Like the 5 Gyres, BOAZ is also concentrating its efforts on education and awareness, and science.

Using a trawl system similar to the 5 Gyres, BOAZ takes water samples from around the South African coast to investigate the plastic pollution in the ocean. Courtesy Keith Wetmore, BOAZ

A biodegradable carrier bag that you can dissolve and drink

One of the highlights of the day was watching Sonja Ray of Prime Plus Packaging demonstrate the biodegradability of a bag made from cassava root. Sonja took the bag, mixed it up with some hot water, and once it had dissolved into the water, she drank some of the liquid! Sonja’s company is transforming from a plastic bag producer to a producer of cassava starch bags – these bags are fully biodegradable and compostable and contain no toxic chemicals.

Reconnecting people with nature through beach cleanups

Our regular readers and TrashBash participants will be familiar with The Beach Co-op, one of our cleanup partners. The Beach Co-op started off with Aaniyah Omardien (Founder) and Dr Peter Ryan cleaning up the rocky pools at Surfer’s Corner Muizenberg. There they would find even anemones with plastic bags in them. In 2018 The Beach Co-op was involved in 43 cleanups, cleaning 54.8km of coastline, and reached 4,095 people, 18 businesses, and 5 cities and created 31 partnerships. We will continue to partner with The Beach Co-op in 2019 – our next TrashBash takes place on Saturday 25 May 2019 – venue to be announced.

Getting outside on to the beach is good for you! Photo: Helen Lockhart

Storyteller Fikile captivates Aquarium audiences with his love for the ocean

Our audience then had the opportunity to visit the I&J Ocean Exhibit to watch the divers feeding the animals and listen to Senior Floor Guide Fikile Sizwenya speak to visitors about the exhibit and the animals.  Fikile started at the Aquarium as a security guard. He was so enthralled by what he saw in the Aquarium that he decided to do the volunteer course, and soon after that was employed by the Aquarium as member of our Guest Experience team.  Fikile has an immense love of the ocean and the environment and has become an ocean ambassador and a “way-shower” in his community. Fiks tells the stories of Bob and Alvi, two rescued turtles, with the passion and charisma of Sir David Attenborough. 

Running in the family

We were treated to a surprise presentation by Asavela Sizwenya from Masiyile High School in Khayelitsha. Asavela is Fikile’s daughter and, like her father, Asavela is passionate about making a difference in her community, particularly when it comes to waste and recycling. Her key message was that you don't buy the product for the packaging, but for the product itself – so try and avoid packaging at all costs!

Valuing the waste pickers in South Africa – invisible environmentalists

For me, the eye-opener moment came when Professor Catherina Schenck, DST/NRF/CSIR Chair in Waste and Society at the University of the Western Cape, gave her presentation on the role and value of the informal waste pickers in the South African waste management system. Every week men and women come into Cape Town’s suburbs on waste collection days to sort through the bins before the waste trucks arrive. These men and women are waste pickers and, although they are disregarded by many, they play an extremely valuable role, collecting 90% of South Africa’s recyclable waste. According to the World Bank (2016), 54.425 tonnes of waste are generated per day in South Africa, of which just 10% is recycled. South Africans are sending R17 billion worth of valuable “waste” to landfill every year. The waste pickers not only collect recyclable waste, but also bricks, wood, furniture, household goods, clothing and food – some of which is then sold on to be used by others. They are providing a free service to many of the citizens in our cities! Dr Schenck pointed out that 30,000 people are employed in the formal waste sector whereas there are 215,000 self-employed informal waste pickers. These people need to be valued and opportunities for them increased so that they can be integrated into the waste management system.

A landfill site managed by waste pickers. According to UNEP (2013) waste pickers are “invisible environmentalists”. Courtesy Dr Catherina Schenck. 

#ICarryMyOwn - Action for plastic-free road running

Ultra-trail runner, activist and campaigner, and small business owner (SUPA) Karoline Hanks was the penultimate speaker for the day – her vision is plastic-free road running events in South Africa. Road running is an increasingly popular sport in our country with numerous high profile races including the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon and the Comrades Marathon. Sickened by the amount of plastic water sachets discarded by runners during races Karoline has quit road running, opting instead for trail events during which runners, are by necessity, required to carry their own hydration. Out of this the #ICarryMyOwn campaign was born in 2018, encouraging runners to opt for hydration packs, and refillable water bottles.

Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon: The items above were gathered from just 100m stretch at top of Chapman’s Peak 3 days after clean up -  84 sachets, 86 gel tops/packets, 328 bitten off/spat out corners. A total of 1.3 million sachets were handed out during both the half marathon and the ultra-marathon. Courtesy Karoline Hanks. 

Karoline has doggedly persevered with her message to race organisers, the media, and the running community, and although progress is a bit too slow for her liking, there have been some shifts. Several races including the Milkwood are now sachet-free; the Red Hill, Peninsula and Two Oceans Marathon organisers tested the tank and tap system in 2018 and more races have been asking to use this system; several races have reduced the number of water stations available; more runners are willing to carry their own hydration at races (40% of OMTOM ultra entrants said they would, if refill stations were available) and there has been measurable growth in the self-carry hydration category in sports retail outlets.

Support for a plastic-free South Africa

Upon hearing Karoline’s cause, Elsabe van Zyl, Advertising Manager for SPAR Western Cape & Namibia, committed that SPAR would reduce the number of water stations available at its SPAR 10km Ladies’ Race this year and next year would ensure that no plastic sachets are handed out during the race.

And then there was more exciting news! Andrew Smith, Commercial Partnerships and Strategic Projects Manager for the V&A Waterfront, made the announcement that as of 3 July 2019 (International Plastic Bag Free Day) the entire Waterfront property will be straw free (this includes plastic and biodegradable straws). Many of the Waterfront’s tenants have already banned plastic straws in favour of alternatives.  The V&A Waterfront’s head office will also ban all plastic and biodegradable straws and single-use plastic bags from 1 April.

The audience was thrilled with these commitments from two significant organisations in South Africa and loudly applauded Elsabe and Andrew for their bold statements.

5 Gyres ambassador campaigns for a plastic shopping bag free South Africa

Last, but not least was Hayley McLellan, the Aquarium’s Environmental Campaigner, whose tireless commitment to a plastic shopping bag free South Africa has inspired many South Africans. Hayley acknowledged the work being done by SPAR and the V&A Waterfront, and also shared some of the recent highlights of the Rethink the Bag campaign. She also introduced us to some of the young changemakers, a few of whom were in the audience, including Rocco da Silva and Andrew Ferguson from The Future Kids, Jade Bothma from Oceano Reddentes, Ray Clark from Earth Child, Terry Clark from Sea the Future, Kulithemba Qwa Qwa from Ntwasahlobo Primary in Khayelitsha and Asavela Sizwenya from Masiyile High School also in Khayelitsha.

Jade Bothma of Oceano Reddentes makes her ocean pledge at the Home to Ocean Summit. Courtesy Oceano Reddentes

The Summit concluded with an open conversation during which the presenters and audience engaged with one another, discussing challenges and solutions and offering to support one another. MC for the day Renée Leeuwner, the Aquarium’s Communications & Media Executive, wrapped up by thanking everyone and noted that “a wave has been building over the past couple of years. Everyone in the room has had a part to play in creating this wave. More and more people are getting involved and more and more people are realizing that they too can make a difference. We need to keep the wave going, because when it breaks, the outcome will be one of positivity for the environment”.

A special thanks to all our speakers and especially Dr Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins for spending the day with us (they were only in Cape Town for three full days before joining the Semester at Sea voyage as onboard educators). 

Home to Ocean – our choices connect us

Home to Ocean is the new name of the Aquarium’s campaign against plastic in the oceans. It incorporates the flagship environmental campaign Rethink the Bag, as well as Straws Suck, TapIn, Cut a loop, Balloon Busters, and Bin your Butts campaigns.   

Why “Home to Ocean”?

  • We originated from the ocean
  • The oceans are the planet’s life support system
  • Planet Earth is our only home
  • Healthy oceans = healthy planet = healthy people
  • What we do on land impacts the ocean
  • We are connected to the ocean no matter where we live
  • Our daily choices and actions impact the ocean
  • Our choices connect us – land to sea, species to species, present to future.

As Sylvia Earle says  “Even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.”

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