Durban’s south coastline was choked by a mass of plastic litter after a recent storm, making it easy to see why South Africa ranks among the top 20 worst marine plastic polluters in the world.

The muddy forest floors of Mangrove swamps are usually alive with numerous crabs but when marine scientist Dr Brent Newman visited Durban harbour recently, not a single crab was found in the mangroves near the Bluff Yacht Club because the biologically-rich environment was lined with a thick layer of plastic that prevented crabs from burrowing into the mud.

Photo: Lisa Guastella

“The mangroves were full of plastic, obliterating habitat for crabs. We could not find even one,” said a scientist from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) during a panel discussion. Marine biology lecturer Dr David Glassom said recent studies by UKZN biology students demonstrated that several species of juvenile fish off the Durban coastline were growing at a slower rate and dying at a faster rate from eating microplastics (tiny fragments of plastic washed into the ocean sea). Plastic pollution in the sea is a fairly recent problem, spawned by the throw-away society of the mid-1950s, that developed as manufacturers encouraged consumers to use disposable products including paper plates, paper cups, plastic bags, plastic cutlery and plastic packaging material. A researcher from the University of Georgia, Dr Jenna Jambeck, led a recent international scientific study on marine plastic pollution which estimated that eight million tons of plastic flowed into the world’s oceans in 2010 alone. Jambeck ranked South Africa as one of the ‘worst culprit’ ranking at number 11 in the list of 20 countries that generated the highest volumes of mismanaged plastic waste.

Mark Gerrard of the Wildlands Conservation Trust said a major plastic recycling project had been set up near Pietermaritzburg to convert plastic waste into a variety of products such as school desks and chairs to tackle the problem at the source. “One of the big problems is public awareness. Portnet spends millions every year trying to clear up the mess, but after every heavy rainfall you still see football-sized fields of plastic floating around in the harbour.”

Plastics SA, the umbrella organisation representing the local plastics industry, estimates that about 293 000 tons of plastic was recycled in South Africa in 2015 Ц about 19% of the volume of virgin plastic polymer produced in this country in the same year.