Our natural environment is as much a part of our heritage as our cultural environment. As South Africans prepare to celebrate Heritage Day on 24 September, it is opportune for all of us to reflect on the impact we, as citizens of the world, have on our environment, particularly through the amount of waste and litter that is generated daily.

It is a time for all South Africans to take responsibility for keeping their communities and the natural environment free of litter, and to implement the 4 R’s – Reduce, Recover, Re-use and Recycle – in our daily lives.

The waste generated not only impacts on the land we occupy, but also has devastating effects on the oceans. Last week South Africans marked National Clean-up Week and partook in initiatives to give impetus to National Recycling Day and International Coastal Clean-up Day – both on 15 September.

This Clean-Up Week initiative which is supported and endorsed by these sectors, in partnership with provincial and local government, environmental organisations, businesses, schools and communities.  

Every year close to 120 000 volunteers participate in a range of clean-up activities alongside roads, on river banks and in rivers, at schools and in residential areas and illegal dumping sites. By participating in initiatives such as these, we, as members of the public, of government and civil society, are contributing to key actions against marine pollution.

According to the World Bank, South Africa produces 54 425 tonnes of municipal solid waste daily ranking the country 15th in the world. On a per capita basis, each household produces the equivalent of two kilograms of waste day, placing South Africa at number 38 globally. Marine litter, particularly plastics, has become a matter of increasing global and national concern as   plastic production reaches new highs.  More than 320 million tons of plastic is now being produced annually.

South Africa’s commitment to addressing marine litter and the growing problem of micro-plastics is evident from our participation in, for example, the G20’s Action Plan on Marin Litter and the United Nation’s  Clean Seas Campaign, which seeks to dramatically reduce the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastics.

Our country is also a participant in the Western Indian Ocean Strategic Action Programme (WIO-SAP) on land-based sources of marine pollution. Nationally, the Department works in collaboration with sister departments and industry stakeholders to implement programmes such as Working for the Coast. It is important to note that in terms of the government’s policy to create employment, this programme aimed at clearing litter from our beaches   employed over 2 400 people in the 2016 to 2018 cycle. Of these, 1 320 employees were women, while 1 560 were youth.

Although this programme has been in place for several years, it directly contributes to calls under the G20 Action Plan to support litter removal and remediation action. This initiative further promotes the socio-economic benefits of litter collection. Coastal clean-ups contribute directly to achieving growth in this sector of the economy by encouraging and assisting local communities to develop waste recycle and repurposing initiatives that will earn an income. 

Waste cannot be managed without the support of the industries that produce packaging and plastics, and the retail companies trading these products. We can only have a cleaner, greener South Africa if each individual changes their behaviour towards not just littering, but also towards waste in general. Waste holds financial wealth for many – if it is recovered and recycled efficiently.

Approximately 10.8% of South African households sort their refuse for recycling, an indication that waste management practices are improving amongst the general population. All provinces have some level of formal recycling practices linked to waste management at a residential level.

This figure, although representing progress, needs to improve to ensure that more households, businesses and industries recover and recycle their waste. According to a Statistics South Africa report released earlier this year, waste recycling was most common in provinces with the largest urban populations and least common in the most rural provinces.

Whilst 20, 3% of urban households in the Western Cape, and 12, 7% of urban households in Gauteng sorted waste for recycling, only 1, 2% of urban households in Limpopo recycled waste. Recycling has not only been expanded as an environmentally-focused activity, but also a fully-fledged business sector that provides much-needed jobs that contribute to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

South Africa is committed to advancing the principles of Circular Economy and continues to register notable progress in dealing with wasteful patterns of production and consumption, as well as bringing new entrants into the waste economy space. One such initiative is the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Recycling Enterprise Support Programme (RESP).

The primary objective of this programme is to provide developmental funding for projects in the form of start-up grants. The programme has been allocated a budget R 194 million over a three-year period and has already had a positive impact on 12 black-owned business enterprises.

As the Department entrusted by the Constitution with the crucial legislative mandate to ensure all South Africans live in a clean and healthy environment, we work daily to ensure that the legacy we leave for our children and grandchildren is one for which we will be proud. 

It is a legacy that requires of all of us to be more conscious of our natural heritage – our plants and animals and our general environment – and consider the effects our wasteful ways have on our ability to live clean and healthy lives. It is time that we all become more environmentally conscious, not through major actions, but through one simple act – by picking up our litter and starting to Reduce, Recover, Re-Use and Recycle our waste.

Albi Modise is the Chief Director of Communications in the Department of Environmental Affairs. 

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