I realized one of my travel dreams recently, when I spent eight days on a holiday break in Cape Town, South Africa. The scenery was breathtaking, the weather perfect, the food delicious.
And then there was the trash.
Somehow, when you go so far away, to a place so exotic, you don’t expect to find the same problems you deal with day to day at home. I sure didn’t.
In retrospect, that was a pretty naïve attitude. Cape Town is a bustling metropolis with a population of 3.5 million. Why wouldn’t they have trash? And why would they do a better job than any other city in containing it?
Still, I was disappointed. There I was, on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and the tide pools and rocks were littered with plastic bags, plastic straws, bottle tops, aluminum cans, and broken pieces of polystyrene foam, to name a few. Where was it all coming from?
To some degree, Cape Town is a trash magnet. It sits at the very bottom of the tip of the African continent. Two storied oceans – the Indian and the Atlantic – furiously collide just southeast of the city’s coast, sending roiling waves crashing inland. Stand on any shore, and at the oceanic horizon you’ll see one massive container ship after another taking advantage of the southern currents to move billions of tons of manufactured goods from China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand across the bottom of the world to eager consumers in Europe and North and South America. All it takes is one of those ships to founder in a storm or on some hidden shoals, and millions of pieces of junk get dumped into the sea. A recent shipwreck off the coast of New Zealand made headlines recently when it did just that.
Then there are the zillions of plastic bags that are used – and discarded – every day not just in Cape Town, but across South Africa. Initially, when I went to the market, I was impressed when I was charged a few cents for every bag I needed to cart my groceries home. Having to pay a nickel per disposable bag at the grocery stores where I work, in Washington, D.C., has reduced the use of throwaways by over 65 percent. But in Cape Town, I noticed that most shoppers did not bring their own bags, despite the tariff. Empty plastic bags skitter over the beach like sand pipers, or get caught up in city fences like old tattered flags.
Cape Town’s celebrated Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rightly deserves its reputation as one of the most magnificent plant collections on earth. It’s also the only place that seems to have trash and litter under control. Why? Because all the trash cans have been removed from the grounds. Throughout the gardens, signs remind people that whatever they bring in, they have to take out – including their rubbish. There’s no 'garbage patrol' wandering around, keeping an eye on would-be litterers. People just don’t do it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public place so neat and tidy.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge the effort the “Mother City,” as residents call Cape Town, is making to boost recycling and get a handle on the 6,000 tons of waste generated there every day. Recycling centers have been set up for bottles, cans, paper, plastic, and discarded electronics. The city’s Solid Waste Management department urges citizens to “reduce, reuse and recycle,” and recommends people not buy plastic-wrapped vegetables on polystyrene trays, among other actions.
Cape Town also participates in the South Africa International Coastal Cleanup campaign. In 2011, 21,763 volunteers collected 44,738 kg of debris from the country’s beaches. Underwater clean ups also took place with the help of 154 divers in the Western Cape who volunteered their time to clean 1,687 kg of debris from the ocean’s floor.
That's all well and good. But wouldn't it be better if less trash were generated in the first place? Is it time for a global ban on disposable plastic bags, bottles and straws. Is it possible to create a bottle cap that disintegrates in sea water?
Cape Town is certainly not the only city in the world that deals with plastic trash. But seeing it there reminded me of how widespread the problem is, and how important it is for all of us to do our part to reduce it.
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