If you follow any environmental threads on social media you will have become aware of the remarkable, and ongoing, work done by a group of concerned residents of Irene, Centurion and the Crocodile River Reserve to clean up the Hennops River.
And, likewise, you will have become aware of the brouhaha surrounding the shameful state of the open sewer named the Vaal River, that flows through Vereeniging, Vanderbijl Park and Parys.
In the case of the Hennops the clean-up is spearheaded by a riverbank resident, Willem Snyman, who through sheer doggedness and personal effort, has attracted teams of volunteers, as well as support from local businesses in the form of sustenance and protective gear, and who has, weekend after weekend, removed tons ~ literally tons ~ of rubbish from the river.
If ever there was a South African who deserved a Presidential award for service above self, it’s Snyman.
But why is the Hennops so chronically polluted? Simple. Its headwaters are to be found in, or flowing through, Tembisa, Ivory Park, the Centurion industrial area and Olievenhoutbosch. In all of these areas rubbish removal services, and street cleaning, are minimal, if they exist at all. As a result, rubbish accumulates, through carelessness, gravity or wind action on what residents may see as wasteland, which is often a watercourse, the very watercourses that, when it rains, form the headwaters of the Hennops.
And what is this waste? Simply every sort of detritus produced by the activities of life. Plastic wrappers, bottles, polystyrene packaging, disposable nappies, rags, personal hygiene items, even broken furniture, discarded supermarket trolleys, car parts, old suitcases, shoes ~ you name it.
And this, accompanied by broken branches and uprooted trees, makes its way down the river till it encounters a weir or a low-lying bridge, where it sticks and consolidates into a solid mass of mess.
Thus, the efforts of Snyman and his teams, while noble and well-meaning, are only as effective as sticking a plaster over a septic wound. Unless, in other words, an effort is made to stem the flow of rubbish into the headwater streams, Snyman and his teams are doomed to a life of continued and continual clean-ups.
So what’s to be done? Fundamentally, consumers (and we mean consumers the world over) must adopt a different mindset to their purchasing and consumption: one that takes ownership of the bought product not only for its useful lifetime but for its “afterlife” as well. In other words, one must be responsible for one’s possessions right through their total existence, from the moment of purchase until the item ceases to be, either because one has sold it to somebody else, or because it has been repurposed or refurbished, or until it has been broken up and its components reused in some way.
And this includes not only the product itself, but whatever instruction manuals and packaging material it came with as well.
Moreover, a bit of Extinction Rebellion consumer activism wouldn’t go amiss. Thus, products sold in non-recyclable or wasteful packaging should be boycotted (we wrote last edition how recycling depots will not pay for coloured cooldrink bottles, for example. If such drinks were boycotted in-store by sufficient numbers of consumers the manufacturers would soon investigate the reason for the drop in sales and make a change).
And there’s no doubt that the state could help drive the necessary change in consumer behaviour through the simple economic persuasion of taxing certain packaging material out of existence, for example those that cannot be recycled and for which recyclable alternatives exist. Or by banning them outright.
For, unless society curtails the use of plastics and changes its consumption patterns anything that floats and which doesn’t have intrinsic value is headed one way, and that’s downhill and downstream, and eventually out to sea, where it floats round and round on the ocean currents until it encounters one of the big (very big) garbage gyres that now grace the centres of every ocean.
And despite the noble but completely futile attempts by various environmental do-gooders to remove the gyres (a totally impossible task seeing that some cover a surface area the size of the Free State) they will only get bigger each year unless nations worldwide (South Africa included) choose to cut off the head of the snake as it were and stop the stuff from entering the environment in the first place.

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