Covid-19 masks are contributing to the burden of water pollution

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By Lungi Langa

Scores of people helped clean up the Umgeni River mouth in Durban on Saturday 18 September to mark International Coastal Cleanup Day.

Disposable masks are starting to become a massive pollution problem. During Saturday’s Umgeni River mouth clean-up, Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Portfolio Committee Member Thembeka Mchunu said it was concerning that masks that are required to prevent Covid-19 infection are now adding to the pollution in South African waterways.

“There is this one issue that I think we need to take care of… the issue of disposing of disposable masks. They seem to be posing a danger to our environment. I know that some of our communities are not yet educated on the fact that they need to dispose of them in a way that is not going to pollute our environment. This is one campaign that I think we need to take up,” she said.

Environment, Forestry and Fisheries portfolio committee Thembeka Mchunu addressing those gathering for the beach clean up in Umngeni mouth on Saturday 18 September 2021. (Photo: Supplied)

Mchunu said communities should be educated about both the importance of protecting the environment and wearing masks, commending the organisations behind the clean-up drive.

“We really appreciate this initiative. We are a department that is working hard to ensure that as South Africa, we really move towards safeguarding our environment as we all know that we are faced with the challenge of climate change which is affecting the country and the world. We are preparing for the COP26 conference which is coming up in November. As we prepare, I believe that this event is very important,” she said.

A beach clean up in Durban Umngeni mouth on Saturday 18 September 2021 organised by Adopt A River. (Photo: Supplied)

Mchunu said preparing for bigger global events meant that there was a need to look into coastal clean-ups where work was being done to ensure that the environment was being protected.

She said the environment must be seen as beneficial to the economy as rivers and oceans are assets.

The clean-up formed part of the International Coastal Clean-up, which is organised by the Ocean Conservancy.

Janet Simpkins, director of Adopt-A-River, said the waste that was collected would be collated as part of an international study on ocean pollution. Last year, at least 400kg of plastic was picked up during coastal clean-ups in South Africa. This was a fraction of the plastic that ends up in the country’s oceans, she said.

A beach clean up in Durban Umngeni mouth on Saturday 18 September 2021 organised by Adopt A River. The clean up formed part of the international coastal cleanup campaign arranged by Ocean Conservancy and every piece of litter picked up was noted down and data collated will form part of an international study on ocean pollution. (Photo: Supplied)

Participants in the clean-up were asked to fill in a form about the kind of waste they picked up.

Anton Hanekom, executive director of Plastic SA, said the clean-up has grown since the first event, held 25 years ago. “I think this is such an important platform to educate and to create awareness and to make sure that the message is going out,” he said.

Hanekom said while there was no quick fix to solving the problem of waste,  involving communities and businesses made a big difference.

Some of the items that were picked up on the beach included plastic bottles, chip wrappers, syringes, condoms, shoes, nappies and other waste.

A beach clean up in Durban Umngeni mouth on Saturday 18 September 2021 organised by Adopt A River. The clean up was part of the international coastal cleanup campaign arranged by Ocean Conservancy and every piece of litter picked up was noted down and data collated will form part of an international study on ocean pollution. (Photo: Supplied)

One of the participants in the clean-up, Sarah Alsen, 54, who runs local environmental organisation Bioregional, said waste reduction needs to be looked at in new ways. She said a worrying amount of waste was ending up in the rivers and oceans. “I’m depressed about the state of the environment and so anxious that we as humans are creating so much waste that is polluting the earth. So … I came to help.”

She said there should be more plastic and zero-waste shops which require customers to bring their own containers and bags, instead of using plastic.

A beach clean up in Durban Umngeni mouth on Saturday 18 September 2021 organised by Adopt A River.  (Photo: Supplied)

At least 9-million kilograms of rubbish was collected from coastal zones by the International Ocean Clean-up by Ocean Conservancy across the world in 2019. Over a million volunteers from 116 countries participated in the clean-ups.

Simpkins said they were thrilled with the turnout for Saturday’s clean-up as about 150 people took part.

While the organisation does daily clean-ups, the event is important as it brings in other members of the community joining in.

Every piece of litter picked up was noted down and data collated will form part of an international study on ocean pollution. (Photo: Supplied)

She said it was the first time that they logged information on the items that they collected as they normally collect waste, sort it for recycling, and send the rest to landfill sites. The waste varies from animal carcasses to electrical appliances and other items that one would not expect to find on the beaches or in rivers. DM/OBP


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