Clean-up at Monwabisi Beach, Cape Town

At first sight the coast looks picture perfect. But a closer look reveals plastic and other debris lurking in the dunes and between rocks. This photo essay shows what I learnt about how plastic waste becomes hidden and the value of beach clean-ups. 

View of the tidal pool at Monwabisi beach, Cape Town (4 December 2020)

The clean-up was organised by the Green Anglicans who arranged for volunteers from Eluvukweni church to travel from Crossroads to Monwabisi beach, in False Bay near Khayelitsha. 

Volunteers gradually arrive: Medics visiting Cape Town from Cuba (foreground) and volunteers from Eluvukweni Sunday school (background)

We arrived to find several other organisations also interested in bringing about change and environmental conservation. One group was designing a website to change the image of townships by showcasing entrepreneurship in Khayelitsha and the innovative young people who live there. Other groups included Changes and Inkwenkwezi Women Empowerment Program who had also planned a beach clean-up. 

Standing statues: A youth group pose for photos on concrete posts at the beach pavillion

Before we started and by way of introduction, each organisation took turns to give a short performance involving singing and dancing. 

I think this is the dance version of photo bombing.

The final group invited everyone to join in with an exercise routine.

A knees up at the seaside!

Once kitted out with protective gear but before we started, we were reminded of what had brought us together on this sunny Saturday morning. Rev Rachel Mash (Green Anglicans) asked people to shout out the names of sea creatures. She then explained the problems caused when these animals cannot tell the difference between pieces of plastic and food. More information about what happens when plastic is ingested can be found here.

Changes (community organisation) and The Green Anglicans working together

At first it seemed as though there was only the odd bit of plastic here and there.  

A rogue blue straw rests on the surface of the sand

But as I looked closer, more and more items become visible. Many had become embedded in the dunes, trapped in-between rocks or enmeshed in seaweed. 

Some items were impossible to remove because they were firmly stuck in-between the rocks 

Over time, the dunes were gradually subsuming plastic bags and other items 

A half buried plastic carrier bag

Seaweed had grown around this plastic sucker (lolly pop) stick, attaching it to the rock 

Easy to miss items

Some debris had become micro plastic and were camouflaged by the sand and stones

Blue plastic shards look similar to rock

I mostly found white ‘sucker’ (lolly pop) sticks

I thought they were straws but they were lolly sticks

So what?

There is an ongoing debate about the value of beach clean-ups. Anti-plastic campaigners argue that efforts should be focussed on avoiding plastic completely to stop any more debris from entering the oceans. Others see beach clean-ups as a way to bring people together and raise awareness of environmental issues. From my morning at Monwabisi beach, both positions are valid. Once plastic material enters the natural environment it can be impossible to completely remove.

The way plastic becomes embedded in its surroundings means it is time consuming to find and collect from the beach

However, there is a social side to participating in a clean-up that made me experience the beach in a way I would not have done otherwise. Beaches in Cape Town are often portrayed as having economic value because of the tourists that they attract. While this is true, they are also places that are enjoyed for a range of purposes that also make them worth protecting. Although only at the beach for a short time, we saw people fishing, playing, sunbathing, swimming, collecting sand prawns, and participating in religious rituals. It was also nice to meet new people.

Foreground: A volunteer picks up plastic hidden among the damaged sea defence bricks
Background: A baptism taking place at the shallow end of the tidal pool

What next?

Beaches are closed at the moment and my research is on hold due to ongoing restrictions related to corona virus. In the meantime I am continuing to work remotely and reading up on the comparative social, economic and environmental aspects of tackling plastic waste.

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