1001 Water-and-waste-wise ways: Different city, same plastic

One hundred reusable pads headed off to a clinic in the Eastern Cape: the cores stuffed with waste fabric. Because this blog needs to start with something hopeful.

One hundred reusable pads headed off to a clinic in the Eastern Cape: the cores stuffed with waste fabric. Because this blog needs to start with something hopeful.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in the beautifully oiled machine that is the Kingsmead Book Fair – kudos to the organisers, and thanks to my fellow authors: it’s such fun hanging around other folk with a yen for inventing imaginary people and worlds.

But the trip itself took me right back to the impulse that started the waste book: plastic plastic everywhere – and all in the name of convenience. Airports, hotels, chain restaurants are one huge horrifying sea of single-use plastic. This while seeing the same old bleat on social media: that instead of shaming the huge corporations who generate tons of branded rubbish, the onus is on us not to litter. Sure, but dropping our Big Mac wrappings or Coke bottle or plastic cutlery into a bin simply moves that garbage a few metres to the left or right. It doesn’t address the problem of generating that waste in the first place, or the energy and planetary costs of disposing of it. According to National Geographic, HALF of the world’s plastic has been manufactured since 2000. That’s in our children’s lifetimes. We need to send loud and clear messages to manufacturers: enough is enough.

Anyway, I was so shaken by the profligate appearance of plastic on my weekend of travel, I carted most of it home with me, not trusting the good people of Jozi to recycle it. Then I realised it was ridiculous for me to angst about plastic jam tubs when I had FLOWN up to Johannesburg in the first place. Sigh. But this is no excuse NOT to sweat the small stuff

Here’s some of that small stuff: the vanity kit in my hotel bathroom. Note the “greenwashed” box, with the magic “eco” word. But what’s the point when the two earbuds (plastic) and single cotton pad it contains are wrapped in extra plastic? And what earthly reason is there for the emery board to have its own plastic jacket? No man, this nonsense has got to stop.


And now (brace yourself for slappable virtue-signalling), pics of the garbage I’ve generated this year (1 Jan to 31 May). Those two plastic bags: all I’m sending to landfill so far in 2019. Their contents consist almost entirely of the polystyrene trays and cling-wrap in which the raw chicken for my cats is packaged. (And there’s a solution in sight, as I’ve found a free-range chicken outlet in Tokai – just need to check whether they’ll let me bring in my own containers.) So yay for me, right?

In five months, two bags of unrecyclable waste (irony: spot the recycling sign on the polystyrene tray that held raw meat…)

In five months, two bags of unrecyclable waste (irony: spot the recycling sign on the polystyrene tray that held raw meat…)

NO. I compost, I recycle all my glass, metal and paper, I burn food-stained paper and used cotton-wool, but LOOK at the bag of plastic I collected for recycling over the same five-month period! HORRORS. And that’s trying as hard as possible to not to buy stuff packaged in plastic. Plus it doesn’t include the six eco-bricks I’ve filled this year with little bits of single-use plastic (those jam tublets and what-not).


So if for all my draconian waste-free and anti-plastic measures, I’ve generated a sack of plastic nearly as tall as myself in five months, what kind of plastic waste is the average middle-class household producing? We’re pretty much forced to be complicit as the consumer industry shoves the stuff down our throats. So we need to keep pressuring our food supply sources (Woolworths, I am SO side-eyeing you) to rethink their plastic use. I’ve pointed out before that plastic can be hugely valuable: for preserving food and thus preventing waste, for enabling people who do not own cars to schlep their shopping home without dislocating their shoulders, for products like medical supplies. But there is way too much of it, and now there is this thing of double bagging, Russian-doll-style: where vitamins are packaged both in a jar AND a box, where chicken pieces (and many other goods, including, unforgivably, espresso pods) are individually wrapped in plastic when the entire item is ALREADY packaged in plastic.

Yes, my sack of plastic will go for recycling. And thanks to the informal sector, South Africa is not too bad at this. But much of the plastic we “recycle” actually makes an expensive, planet-mucking trip across the globe to the landfills of South-East Asia, where it piles up in tons, or is burned in toxic polluting pyres that make local people ill. In 2018, China stopped accepting plastic waste, and now Malaysia and the Phillipines are following suit, tired of being dumping-grounds for the waste of the West on top of their own.

Are there solutions? I like the Swiss one, which legislates that every single district/canton is responsible for disposing of its own waste – they may not be ship it off elsewhere. Citizens are welcome to take their rubbish to their local dump – at a cost of about three US dollars per bag. I loved this about my brief time living in Maine: the only way to dispose of waste was to buy (fairly small) garbage bags from the town hall for a dollar each, fill them and take them to the dump. However, we could unload anything recyclable for free. And I remember the recycling centre in Massachusetts (SA journalist Charlene Smith took me to visit): a magical place where everything imaginable could be dropped off and picked up (it had a library, a barn full of furniture, racks of clothing and a toy “shop”). After winding our way through all the different spots allotted to tin, glass, engine oil, lawn clippings, e-waste and much more, we finally handed our (by now tiny) packet of genuine garbage to a worker who interrogated us as to its contents: we were SURE nothing in there was recyclable?

So it’s time to start leaning on big businesses and small municipalities: create less waste at one end, and provide smart, sensible recycling options (with much-needed incoming-generating possibilities) at the other end.

My visit to Gauteng, a water-stressed region, also made me wonder when “acting like a Capetonian” is going to catch on country-wide, especially given that the Eastern Cape is in almost as pitiful a state of drought as Cape Town was a year ago, and water in many major rural centres is either undrinkable or scarce.(Phuthaditjhaba, for one, and don’t even start me on the mismanaged train-wreck that is Makhanda/Grahamstown.) A friend who regularly travels for work arrived at her guesthouse and asked for a bucket for catching her shower water. “We got another one from Cape Town here!” called the receptionist. (I disassembled the waste basket in my hotel room to create a flushing bucket: worked perfectly.) I’ve also noticed that when in other cities, we tend to emerge from the loo to announce, with degrees of defiance, “I’m from Cape Town, so I didn’t flush.” It’s funny, but not funny: we all need to start acting like this.

Thirty packs of pads for new mothers at Mowbray Maternity Home: keeping disposable pads out of landfill.

Thirty packs of pads for new mothers at Mowbray Maternity Home: keeping disposable pads out of landfill.

Is there good news? Yes! Look at these pics of the reusable, washable menstrual and maternity pads a bunch of women in my neighbourhood, led by writer Helen Brain, created — stuffed with beat-up fabric that would otherwise go into landfill. Plus each of those pads is going to keep multiple disposable pads out of those same landfills. The lessons here are obvious — also heartwarming.

PS: My next book — 101 Waste-wise Ways — is finished! Hurrah! I just need to respond to the really useful edits I got, most especially from the ever-reliable Paige Nick. And then it will hop into production and be on its way to a bookshelf near you.

Helen Moffett