Martin Young
Martin Young

Of black people, empty bottles and a body on the beach

I don’t quite see empty plastic bottles in the same way I used to. Two developments brought this about. The first being an initiative to create small businesses recycling empty soft-drink bottles. One that I called “Hanging Hope” and please go ahead, copy it, or tell someone else about it and give him/her a potential income source.

The other was a DStv documentary titled The Real Sea Monster that gives the disturbing story about what happens to discarded plastic. In brief, plastic does not biodegrade — it disintegrates into smaller and smaller particles. Of the millions of tons that reach the sea every year, the end destination is in the form of tiny plastic particles that are mistaken by plankton and larger animals for food and are ingested, even into single-cell organisms. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the documentary shows how plastic absorbs and concentrates industrial toxins and delivers them straight into the food chain. Big plankton eat little plankton, and are in turn eaten by little fish, who become the meals of bigger and bigger fish, until ultimately these land up on our dining room tables, concentrated toxins and all. It’s yet another reason to be worried about the modern world we live in.

So, being lucky enough to go on holiday with my family to a small Eastern Cape estuary town last week, I took notice when I counted at least half a dozen plastic bottles in the water during my kayak paddle to the river mouth. This coincided with a visit to the beach of a large group of black people who I assume were local residents of the nearby township (I could see no Land Rover Discoveries, taxies, buses or other vehicles in the beach parking to explain their presence otherwise). They were having fun, laughing and playing in the water. Some waved and chatted to me as I paddled by. To be fair, at no time did I see anyone throw anything into the water, but you know how easily assumptions are made in this divided country of ours.

An empty Coca-Cola plastic bottle is converted into a plant pot in Manila, Philippines, on December 14, 2012. (AFP / Jay Directo)

An empty Coca-Cola plastic bottle is converted into a plant pot in Manila, the Philippines, on December 14, 2012. (AFP / Jay Directo)

Which raises the question, why is it assumed that black people are more comfortable in littering the environment than whites? Is it really so? Is it really that, as one of our group said afterwards that “they just don’t care”? Or is this just a question of demographics, that, because the black population is 10 times the size of the white population, that for every white person who litters, there will be 10 black people on a simple statistical basis, and at any time one is 10 times more likely to see a black person littering than a white one? In other words, there is no difference between the races in the tendency to litter?

I wondered also whether access to municipal services, garbage removal, and free rubbish bags had anything to do with it. If you live in an environment where the only option to dispose of your garbage at home is in the streets, why would you do any differently when you are elsewhere? I also don’t remember any public bins in the area of this gathering. People who took a long walk to the beach with refreshments would be unlikely to take a long walk back home with the garbage only to leave it in their own driveways. Whatever the answer I am sure it goes way beyond “they don’t care”.

I had an opportunity to pick up at least some of the bottles I saw, but I didn’t. There was nowhere for me to put them, and the beachgoers were watching me. I paddled on by.

At our cottage, we prepared for a last trip to the river mouth, for this was the last full day of our holiday. I saw as I was leaving the huge pile of rubbish we had accumulated during our week long stay, rubbish that was destined for the local tip, where it may or may not be recycled. I realised in that moment that the environmental impact of my presence in that area was way more than that of the local residents who had perhaps littered the beach. Never mind the 1000km round trip to get there, the prawns I had pumped as bait, the fish I had caught, the energy I had consumed, all legally and ethically, the fact was that my footprint had been so much bigger than those who had offended my sense of environmental awareness.

In that moment I realised that my ability to ignore litter because it wasn’t “mine” was as much of an environmental crime as throwing it down in the first place. Also, the garbage that we send quite legitimately into landfills will stay there. Its destination ultimately, even hundreds of thousands of years from now, is the sea and the food chain. I regretted not picking up even just one of those bits of trash.

As we gathered on the beach for the final activity of our holiday, a sad scene played out just metres away. A body had been discovered in the surf, one of those who had laughed and smiled at me as I paddled my kayak earlier that afternoon. The forensic team was there, with body bag, stern looking policemen, and several shocked looking local residents. It was a disturbing ending to our trip.

As we drove home the next day, I could not help but notice on the side of the freeway, every hundred metres or so, discarded plastic bottle after bottle, each with its own threat of long-term environmental and human disaster.

It all came together for me in that moment. Like that person on the beach, our world and society is slowly drowning in a sea of misunderstanding and environmental neglect, and as yet, there is no rescuer in sight.

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    • grim

      wonderful questions and answers. what are the solutions to this plastic world that grows daily. our municipal waste digs a hole and buries it. this is not the solution this world needs. we need everyone to recycle and upcycle their own trash. if we all knew there was no throw away or someone to clean up after us maybe we would all change. your issue with a white and black thing is not relevant. we are all responsible. if you see someone throw something down. do the right thing and ask them to pick it up and dispose of it in a sustainable way. your article highlights so many changes we all need to make as a society and as people protecting our prescious home

    • Dani

      I agree – t’is a great pity that you couldn’t find a spot on your kayak for even one of those bottles. Not only would you have been removing some litter from the environment, but you would also have been showing / leading by example. Perhaps in future consider going kayaking with a plastic shopping bag to collect any litter? Did no one in your group have space for a single plastic bottle?

      The more people share their experiences / reflections, as you just did, the more others will, hopefully, become aware.

      I think, also, it was an erroneous assumption, made from a position of (accustomed) privilege (refuse removal, education, etc) to imply, through writing “this coincided with a visit to the beach of a large group of black people who I assume were local residents of the nearby township” or “why is it assumed that black people are more comfortable in littering the environment than whites?”. If you are brought up with little or no refuse removal, would you know any better? If you don’t know of recycling, why would you even think of picking up someone else’s litter?

      “Like that person on the beach, our world and society is slowly drowning in a sea of misunderstanding and environmental neglect, and as yet, there is no rescuer in sight.” That comment is wrong. We are all “rescuers” – we just have to ‘care enough to be the change we want to see’.

    • tgif1

      Also seen people open their windows while driving and throw all their car trash out. Such a small minded mentality. You raise good points regarding easily accessible disposal points.

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      Just because there are no facilities to discard litter does not give one the right to leave it. If you were capable to carry the products to the beach, you are capable of carrying the empties away too.

      It’s really not rocket science.

    • tongosienda

      The only guy doing something about this plastic bottle problem is the guy we treat with derision. You know him. The guy who so annoyingly blocks our way to work with his plastic laden contraption after rifling through our bins and nauseating us with his presence on our safe and leafy suburban streets. You know him? The guy who walks 20kms pushing his trolley to peddle his pickings at a recycling center somewhere. That guy is the only one doing something meaningful about the plastic bottle problem.

    • MP

      I have great respect for the those collectors/recyclers. We put all our plastic waste into a bundle and keep it separate. Every week they just lift the bundle out and they’re on their way. Everybody should do it.

    • Biloko

      This is not purely an SA problem. Here in the little English town where I live, I frequently see people simply dropping their empty pizza box or empty bottle of cooldrink on the pavement. My technique is to pick up the discarded object and to run after the people who dropped it, saying “Wait, you forgot this” as I thrust it into their hands. Needless to say, this often calls forth a torrent of abuse … but I carry on nevertheless since I love my town and want it to have clean streets. I should also mention that we have many litter bins dotted around, so really there is no reason for just dropping litter.

      Just don’t get me started on the menace of dog poo on the pavements! I have been known to pick up the offending object (my hand shielded by a plastic bag), to run after the dog’s owners, and to say: “You forgot this” as I thrust the damp turd into their hands. I then take a few steps back to avoid a punch on the nose … but the torrent of abusive words can’t be avoided.

      I should also mention that every day when I go shopping for our dinner, I always carry an empty plastic bag to collect the litter on the streets, and eventually deposit it in a public bin. People laugh at me, but I don’t care.

    • Nicholas Ashby

      Is catching fish ethical?

    • TerminalA

      exactly my thinking…i always take 2 plastic bags to the beach to put whatever waste i take to the beach into, and then take it with me when leaving, to either dispose of in a bin or if none are available, i take it back home with me….. as you said..its not rocket science

    • Bert Olivier

      You’re right about plastic, Martin. The same thought struck me some years ago (together with the absurdity that people just keep on inundating nature with lethal plastic), as you will see here:

    • johnbpatson

      Long ago, just after independence in Zim, I travelled with a black American, doing his “roots” thing.
      I saw a beer can, not far from a dustbin, picked it up and put it in.
      He said that he realized that travelling in Africa he always put his litter in bins, or hung on to it till he could, but back home, in the U.S. he threw stuff out of the car window without a thought.
      “It is not something I am proud about, and I did it without thinking, but I think it shows that I do not feel at home in the states,” he said.

    • Waxfoot

      Martin, this may compound your carbon-footprint/executive-polluter angst, but I assume your kayak is probably polyethylene?

    • Gavin Smitsdorp

      On the north coast of Kzn Westbrook beach, almost all the beach litter comes from offshore shipping and local ( Indian )fishermen.

    • Qwerty Asdf

      So so soooo true! I wish we could all help each other out…and help those guys out by separating the trash before tossing it into the bin.

    • TerminalA

      ….. you live in romford…? or dagenham?

    • Martin Young

      Haha…fiberglass – 20 years old, and still going. I have no idea how good that is for the environment:)

    • Johan van Wyk (ouboet)

      Went fishing in during the holiday. Some pretty polluted rivers. Was hardly worth it.

    • Johan van Wyk (ouboet)

      Fiberglass doesn’t decompose very well so not too good.

    • DavyH

      Yes. Recreational fishing has virtually no impact on the overall stocks if you stick to number per day and minimum sizes. It is also a great way to rid the world of surplus beer.

    • Peter Leyland

      Some communities appear to have more concern for the environment and animal welfare that others – I don’t know if the influence or “cause” is culture, tradition, socio-economic circumstances or something else , but the behaviour can be observed.

      In the next suburb next to mine but one, which is overwhelmingly inhabited by black people, there are large municipal rubbish skips at several locations that are half empty.
      On EVERY intersection, there is a large pile of garbage.

      Whilst waiting to collect an employee, I have witnessed (black) residents throwing their garbage outside their own front porch , notwithstanding the availability of municipal skips nearby,

      The piles of garbage on every intersection are both an environmental and a human health hazard.

      I observe the behaviour, which I find repugnant, but I do not understand it.

      This is not a racist rant, it is a recollection of observed behaviour.

      Irrational as it may seem, some of us appear to be happy to live in squalor.

      What I don’t understand is how such people can then complain about their living conditions.

    • Peter Leyland

      I am one of those looneys that stops to pick up this rubbish, then stops at the next intersection, and hands it back to the bemused litterer with a comment like ‘hey sir, you lost this property – it fell out of your car – here it is:

      In response , I have received a few “FU”s, but people mostly apologise.

    • tgif1

      You do care and I absolutely admire you for that. :-)

    • gc

      With thanks – a breath of fresh – and topical – journalism.

    • gc

      Yes. One needs more and more answers to the increasing questions.

    • gc

      Awful cynical.

    • gc

      Now that is a trying question. Even we vegans have to consult the holy hook for more divine advice.