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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