Following the imposition of the nationwide lockdown, the city fell silent as Capetonians stayed away from all public places, including beaches. Cape Town’s Environmental Management Department saw this as a perfect opportunity to do some research.

In the absence of beach goers, Prof. Peter Ryan’s research team from the University of Cape Town, in partnership with the National Government’s Working for Coast Programme, conducted a study into beach litter.

According to the City, the study took place along “250m of beach at Milnerton in Table Bay, at the same site where they have comparative data for 1994/95, 2012 and 2019, and at two 400m stretches of beach on the northern False Bay coast, one at Muizenberg and one east of Sunrise Beach”.

The research, which they were given permits for, took place during Level 5 of the nationwide lockdown, from April 22 to May 2, 2020.

Every morning of the study, litter was gathered and organised into groups. The researchers made some interesting discoveries in the process. “Astonishingly, the oldest item that the team found was a soft drink lid manufactured in 1993,” said the City in a statement.

The researchers found that of most of the litter that they were able to identify, about 94%, came from local sources while others came mainly from the Asian region. Of those which came from Asia, most were plastic items which are able to “drift long distances at sea”.

Other interesting findings include:

– Plastic items, including foamed plastics and cigarette butts, accounted for 92% to 99% of litter items by number, and 85% to 94% by mass

– Litter loads at Muizenberg Corner were highest in the middle of the study period, when onshore southerly winds carried in litter from offshore

– Most of the non-plastic litter came from wooden items at Milnerton and Sunrise Beach, but glass was most prevalent at Muizenberg Corner, accounting for 6% of all litter items (13% of mass). The City reported that there had been no significant decline in glass at Muizenberg Corner during the period that the research took place

– Even with nobody present on the beach, snack food packets including sweet and ice-cream wrappers made up almost all food packaging, as is also typical of street litter

– Compared to data from previous studies, litter loads were not much lower during lockdown, because most litter washes ashore, rather than being left by beachgoers. They assume this is because there was “enough residual litter left in stormwater drains” from before the lockdown to keep litter levels high during the lockdown

– The proportion of local litter was greater at Milnerton (99%) than the two False Bay beaches (91% to 94%), where most foreign items came from Asia (mainly Indonesia), carried by the Agulhas Current

According to the City, the four main sources of beach litter are littering by beach go-ers, litter from local land-based sources washing ashore through the stormwater system, litter dumped from ships, and long-distance drift from other parts of the world.

“The study demonstrates the litter that is dropped on land, ends up in our ocean. Thus, if you throw your cigarette butt in the street and a chocolate wrapper out of the car window instead of in the bin, it is likely to end up in a stormwater pipe and eventually drain into the ocean. The pollution of our natural environment is everybody’s business, and we all need to do our part to protect our rivers, canals, wetlands, and ocean,” said the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Spatial Planning and Environment, Marian Nieuwoudt.

Picture: Facebook/My Muizenberg

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