Tiny plastic dancers

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A fence line between the Grahamstown Riding Club and the tip. Photo: Simon Pamphilon

The infamous fence line of the Makhanda (Grahamstown) tip is a strange kind of beautiful.

The fence boasts a whimsical, elaborately coloured performance of plastic bags and packaging, dancing along the wires. The dancers invite residents to join every day, and the relationship between Makhanda’s plastic and its residents is a dangerous tango.

With the ban of single-use plastics growing across the world, and paper straws and reusable coffee cups becoming more popular, a look at this flashy fence line renders one speechless. The tragedy of it all might be the fact that the majority of this plastic material is recyclable, but Makhanda doesn’t have the proper facilities.

In February of this year Grocott’s reported that the Integrated Waste and Recycling Services (IWARS) units were trashed after funding for the project stalled in 2017. Three of the units were installed in the Makhanda community as a way to curb the dumping of waste while offering a financial incentive for reclaiming materials.

Currently Makhanda has little access to recycling services, as a result, the fence line gains new ‘dancers’ regularly.

On a national scale, according to PlasticsSA’s 2017 Recycling Survey, 43.7% of plastic produced in the country for that year, was recovered. Douw Steyn, Sustainability Director, states that this figure comes from a comparison between the total polymer produced in the country, compared to what comes back for recycling.

The Survey highlights however, that the Eastern Cape had one of the lowest rates of recycling compared to Gauteng and the Western Cape.

The tip’s fence line is covered in single-use plastics. Photo: Simon Pamphilon

Harold Gess from the Makana Plastic Action Group said that recycling in small towns was not as economically viable. “The value of a lot of plastics is so low, that the cost of getting them from a small town to a place where they would ever be recycled is not economical,”, said Gess.

Gess added that one of the reasons recycling worked was due to increasing poverty and desperation.

“To put it in perspective, the going rate for PET plastic is [roughly]R1 per kilogram, when bought from [waste-pickers]. If you consider that the minimum wage is R160 per day essentially, a person who picks in the dump PET bottles, would have to get R160kg per day to get a minimum wage.”

“How do you lug that?” said Gess. “If you think your average Coke costs about R10, a picker on the dump needs to collect 500 empty coke bottles to be able to afford one. That speaks to me about the income disparities in this country.”

Gess believed that solving the plastic problem required little steps from every person and business in a community. Individuals needed to reduce their plastic use, and businesses needed to be more responsible.

Steyn said that in the plastics industry there are four Product Responsibility Organisations (PROs) around the country that monitor and advocate for the responsible use and recycling of various plastics.

However, when plastic is not recycled, and left to burn in a landfill, there are potential hazards. In Makhanda people and animals have been faced with thick smoke as rubbish and plastic continuously burns.

Steyn warned that it wasn’t so much the polymer that caused challenges, but rather the additives companies used in the product such as flame retardants in electronic goods. The only hazardous polymer in a fire situation is PU (polyurethane – foam rubber) , he said.

The Grahamstown Riding Club (GRC) is adjacent to the tip, and suffers from the toxic smoke on a regular basis. With over 30 horses, groom staff, instructors and riders of all ages, the burning tip is a critical concern.

A tree at the Grahamstown Riding Club braves the smoke from the burning tip, plastic bags dot the fence in the distance and smoke seeps into the stables. Photo: Simon Pamphilon

“We just feel helpless,” said Adrienne Plasket, GRC community member. “We are always willing to do our bit, we believe in solutions not just complaining. But, when it comes to managing a municipal dump, you are fairly helpless.

“Our horses are getting sick, we’ve got 30 to 40 school children who ride here every week [and]this can’t be good for them. We’ve got 7 grooms and one riding instructor, all of which have suffered ill health. We have had more absentees in the past three weeks than we have had in the last year.”

Plasket said that the tip has been burning since February, but that prevailing winds usually carry the smoke away from the Club. Unfortunately the winds swung about four weeks ago.

With a travel ban in place due to African Horse Sickness, Plasket and others are unable to move their animals, leaving them no choice but to remain in the smoke.

“We are completely at the mercy of our municipality,” she said.

*Special thank you to Simon Pamphilon for allowing Grocott’s Mail to use his exceptional photographs in this article, as well as “The tipping point”.

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