Each year thousands of tourists flock to South Africa to enjoy the diverse culture, the natural landscapes and the breathtaking beaches. But those beaches hold a troubling secret – plastic pollution. According to The Beach Co-op 99% of litter items found on our beaches are plastic items. Several beaches consistently have thousands of plastic items per metre of beach. These statistics emphasize the urgency to take action.
“We need to change attitudes and behaviour; marine litter is a wholly avoidable problem, and our study shows that it is one that largely rests within our own control.”
Prof Peter Ryan, Scientific Advisor of The Beach Co-op
About 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean each year. They break down into microplastics and enter our waterways and seafood.
Here’s the thing: I was educated on the consequences of plastic usage in school. I continued learning about how to reduce plastic in my daily life at university through my passionate professor who made it his personal mission to save the ocean. And now I’m interning with Greenpop, where I talk about Eco-Bricks and recycling all day, and how it’s best not to buy plastic-packaged items at all. However, I’m not walking my talk as I would like to.
A few weeks ago, when I was running errands, I was determined to leave the grocery store without a single piece of plastic. Admittedly, I felt very proud walking up to the cashpoint, carrying fruits and vegetables all separately. The price stickers were attached to the edibles themselves. In my head I already chanted: “I did it! Yes it is possible! I am zero-waste now!” I’m not sure what kind of temporary amnesia struck me the next moment, but by the time I exited the store a little plastic box of sushi had snuck its way into my reusable bag. I felt guilty and promised to myself to be more considerate the next time.
Then First Thursday came. In the meantime, my plastic-free grocery shopping skills had increased gradually. However, on that evening I looked down into my Mojito glass and what did I see? A single use plastic straw! The embodiment of unnecessary plastic waste! One of the biggest threats to marine life caught up with me because I had forgotten to refuse the straw when ordering. As I stared down on it, I contemplated on my own repetitive behavior. I realised that being prepared is essential. I have a bamboo straw at home, I just have to bring it along with me when going out. Why is it so hard to establish this habit?
The reason why I’m so bluntly honest is that I’m convinced that I can’t be the only person who feels like they’re taking tiny baby steps. Maybe you can relate? The previous weeks have been filled with these little moments of success and defeat. What I know now is one thing: awareness slowly but eventually results in change. And that is crucial.
Soon, bringing our own bamboo straws became a habit for me and my friends.
The good news is, there are so many people already out there, spreading awareness about single-use plastic and taking action. Their initiatives facilitate it for us as individuals and consumers to join in on this important mind shift.
On a large scale, countries such as Germany signed a deal which requires retailers to charge their customers for plastic bags, as they are facing higher taxes. Kenya has recently banned single-use plastic bags entirely. Costa Rica takes it another step further and plans on phasing out all single-use plastic.
On a local level, the city of Cape Town is home to companies and organisations like Waste-Ed, Shop zero in Woodstock and Low Impact Living’s Wild and Waste-Free Shop which support a zero-waste lifestyle. Artists are also realising that through their work they can promote the refusal of plastic. One of them is US-American artist Janine Martel who recently collaborated with The Beach Co-op & Secret Sunrise to launch the first Plastic Is Over beach cleanup party in Cape Town. Starring Janine’s community art project IMAGINE There’s No Plastic, a piece made of about 4500 plastic straws, the party was a great success. Over 400 sq meters of beach, 55 people collected 8 baskets of litter – and had fun doing it. They hope to inspire beach clean-up dance parties worldwide.
The Imagine Circle at the Beach Clean-Up.
(Photos: Otto Whitehead)
This week I met Janine, who is on the forefront of combating straw use, to have a chat about the Imagine Circle, the exhibit at Greenpop’s Reforest Fests in Platbos and “rethinking the straw”.
LM: Hi Janine! IMAGINE There’s No Plastic is an impressive and thought-provoking piece of art. What inspired you to create it in the first place?
JM: It really started as an act of desperation. I live in New York City and it’s a city of 8 million people, very busy, fast-paced life. So I encounter an overwhelming amount of single-use plastic every day. In my sensitivity, I didn’t see a way out of it. In my daily life, I went to the grocery store and I took out my reusable bag, and they would nevertheless always ask me if I wanted a plastic bag. And then in New York they double bag everything with plastic. And I would always talk to everybody and say: “Why do you have to have this double bagged, and why is this given automatically?” It was just my own little personal campaign. On a one to one basis I was advocating for making a change. At least getting engaged with people and get them thinking about it. This shouldn’t be an automatic thing. Plastics become part of our landscape. We are so used to it and there is just such a lack of awareness.
LM: After John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, Yoko Ono designed the Imagine Mosaic in Central Park which you took as an inspiration. Apart from the visible similarity, what other relationships do you see between the art pieces?
JM: When I go through Central Park, really any opportunity that I have, I walk past the Imagine Circle. It’s such a retrieved and peaceful area and has become an iconic place in New York. People from all over the world go there. I like to go there as a local because when you walk through it, it’s a nice break from the busyness of the city life. So one day I was walking past the Imagine Circle, and I was thinking about John Lennon and his song “Imagine” and I thought to myself: “What kind of world would I want to imagine?” And I thought: “Imagine there’s no plastic.” As soon as it came into my head I realised: I need to recreate the Imagine Circle with single-use plastic. The similarities I see between IMAGINE There’s No Plastic and the one in New York is that people are drawn to it. It’s amazing how many people gather around it. And how much time they spend with it.
The John Lennon Memorial in New York Central Park is a popular destination.
Process of Creation
LM: Where did you collect the straws, and what was your experience with the people you collected them from along the way in terms of their awareness of plastic’s impacts?
JM: I came up with this email campaign. I did bars and restaurants because I felt like they were the point of contact. People in food service have the biggest opportunity to make a change around straw usage. If they just did straw upon request, rather than an automatic straw that would help reduce this significantly and also help to shift the mindset, so people realise it’s not an automatic thing. I heard back from a lot of people that they weren’t using plastic straws anymore. They moved to paper, glass and metal. That inspired me so much because I thought: “It’s happening. This is the right time to make this Circle. Change is happening and this is just going to reaffirm it.”
Then the V&A Waterfront stepped up and got behind this project. On the conveyor belt of their waste recovery site, they go through 16 tons of waste every day. They pulled out the straws and put them straight into soapy water. Eventually, I ended up not using any of the straws from bars and restaurants because they were so contaminated. Instead, I used the ones that had been cleaned on the waste recovery site.
-LM: How many straws is the piece comprised of, and how long did it take you to build?
JM: It took me about 4 weeks. The Circle is made of 4 radiating pieces made with 4500 straws, the final one with straws from a beach clean-up by Beach Co-op. The final rim from the beach cleanup shows to me the devastation of plastic because they are so disintegrated.
“If they just did straw upon request, rather than an automatic straw that would help reduce this significantly and also help to shift the mindset, so people realise it’s not an automatic thing.”
Plastic Usage in General
LM: As passionate environmentalists and Active Citizens, we would like to know: How do you reduce plastic usage in your daily life?
JM: For me, I certainly didn’t have awareness, it wasn’t always like that. I want to say though I never used any of the big 4: straws, shopping bags, coffee cups and water bottles. It wasn’t even about the environment, more practicality. Where I was using plastic was yoghurt or muesli. I didn’t think about it at all.
Now plastic is great short term, it makes life so easy, it’s fast, it’s very convenient. But long term it’s a disaster. When you make that shift in your mind, it’s actually so much easier than you think. Today I shop at the farmers market, where I get awesome fresh food without any packaging. Then the things I love I do myself. I make my own muesli and my sister makes my toothpaste.
And the other thing is slowing down. The pace of life is so hectic and fast now, and after work, it’s convenient for people to get a meal in plastic. For me, it’s essential to take the time to make your own food. If we could just slow down, then we won’t really need plastic.
LM: It can sometimes be daunting to change one’s whole life, especially with something as ubiquitous as plastic – do you ever experience moments of frustration?
JM: My moments of frustration are seeing it in so many places where it is unnecessary. Then also sometimes it’s disguised. There is, for example, a tea company which says: made with recycled paper, non-toxic. And you think they are conscious because they care about their packaging, then you open it up and the tea bags are all in plastic. That’s where I see a lot of stupidity and waste of single-use plastic which is straight in your face. It’s just business and money.
LM: Which factors do you think deter people who are aware of the negative impacts of single-use plastic, from reducing their use of it?
JM: It’s the busyness of life and the convenience of plastic that deters people, especially for families. However, there are zero-waste families. Nothing is impossible, it’s just a massive mind shift. We are all mimicking creatures. We mimic each other. When you buy groceries and you see someone with a plastic bag, you think that’s normal.
What I also see is that people have this belief that they don’t make a difference. They think their choices don’t matter. And I think that is why we have so much plastic everywhere. When we live our lives like all of our choices matter we can make this change.
People think that it’s so hard to give up plastic. I understand that, but it’s like anything else in life when you make a decision and you’re committed to something, it’s easy and you just adapt. Before plastic, it was glass, cardboard, tin. Single-use plastic was really just introduced in the eighties, that is only 35 years. Seeing the devastation that it’s causing it’s just not realistic to say that we can continue in this direction. And I’m hopeful, there is change. Spain just banned single-use plastic; the queen of England banned plastic straws and water bottles at Buckingham Palace.
“People think that it’s so hard to give up plastic. I understand that but it’s like anything else in life, when you make a decision and you’re committed to something, it’s easy and you just adapt.”
LM: Why did you choose our Reforest Fest in Platbos to exhibit it?
JM: Greenpop is so close to my heart. I started with them in 2012, when I went to the second Reforest Fest. In the States, I was very involved with the Ban fracking in New York State Campaign. After being on that campaign, I realised that I’m not a fighter. It made me feel sad and angry and I felt more anxious than active. What I like about Greenpop is that instead of fighting the old they are creating change and are actually doing something positive. They are not fighting something but creating what you want. That’s the opportunity that Greenpop has been in my life.
LM: What did you feel was the overall spirit of the festival? Did it reflect the Imagine a World theme?
JM: Absolutely. Greenpop has created an ideal world. It’s a little piece of utopia, a little piece of paradise. That’s the world I want to imagine. I don’t want to see plastic packaging. I don’t want to see waste. I like mindfulness, consciousness, seeing people enjoy themselves and appreciate l feel like Greenpop just brings out the best in people and we need to do more of that.
LM: How did you experience the reactions to your piece?
JM: It was very positive. The first time it was showcased was at Family Fest. Kids were playing in and around the Circle which was really magical for me, to see them interact with it. I liked seeing it come to life, it being part of the world.
Then it just puts it on people’s mind and makes them think: What does it mean Imagine there’s no plastic? It engages people’s curiosity. They start with the straw. I see it as the gateway. If people can make the connection with the straw can start to rethink and refuse.
Kids were enjoying the Imagine Circle at Reforest Fest. (Photo: Janine Martel)
LM: Having also played a big part in the beach clean op organized with Secret Sunrise and The Beach Co-op last Saturday, IMAGINE There’s No Plastic has certainly left an impression on Capetonians! What’s next for the project’s South African journey?
JM: The piece is staying in Cape Town. I created photos of the mosaic so people can download it and make their own Imagine Circles. I see Imagine Circles made everywhere. And not only with straws, could be with anything. I’m hoping to do it in schools with teachers and kids because we have such an opportunity of change if we get to the hearts and minds of children.
I also want to make the Imagine Circle into a sticker, which will not be plastic but weed pasting. So once a bar or a restaurant signs on to being strawless, they can put it in the front of the restaurant, where you walk in. So people will know and they’ll like to go there because they know they are conscious people.
LM: We heard that you are heading back to the US soon, so what are your future plans and what’s in store for yourself and your work?
JM: I’m coming back to Cape Town in October. In between, I want to take the Imagine Circle to some of the most polluted beaches. There I’ll do a time lapse of a beach cleanup.
“Doing this project took away my feeling of helplessness and it turned into hopefulness, all I see is change now, I see an end. People I believe are waking up. When I see people using plastic, I think they are just not aware.”
Inspired by Janine a thought develops: becoming perfectly waste-free is a process. Plastic is omnipresent, whether it be single use or recyclable and no doubt both have to be reduced significantly. Here are 3 easy step how:
- Simply be aware, change follows almost naturally
- Get active about every new plastic challenge encountered as you’re becoming an Active Citizen. When you order a drink, the request: “No straw please.” has to become a habit.
- At the same time it is just as important to activate others and raise awareness. If other people hear you refuse the straw, they may soon imitate your positive habit.
On Friday, Deon our Greenpop Nursery Manager and I go grocery shopping for our team lunch. As we’re paying we see a guy fetching a plastic straw for his drink. Deon friendly but energetically tells him that he doesn’t really need that straw. This might be the simplest and most effective form of activation. I’m thinking: “Yes. That’s how I want to be.” What if everyone gave you strange looks whenever reaching for a plastic straw? That’s how it starts. If we keep pushing we’ll get there. People can change their behavior quickly with the right incentive. Let’s be pioneers and leaders in this progress!
From now on whenever packing your bags before leaving your house, try to think about what you need to take with you to avoid plastic on that day, just as you remember to take your phone and your keys. This way you can continuously establish more productive habits to reduce your plastic usage.
Later this week, our team is picking up trash at our nursery which the strong wind keeps blowing on the site day by day. It’s another moment of realisation as we’re being confronted with the consequences of plastic waste. Although it’s a frustrating task, my attitude is positive and as I’m collecting single use plastic straws, in my head I’m chanting: “It’s the wind of change.”
Be part of the change. (Photo: Karen Smith)
Keen on taking action to help clean our beaches? Join a Trash-Bash Clean-up with The Beach Co-op and the Two Oceans Aquarium.
- 9 June – time to be confirmed
- 15 September – time to be confirmed
- 8 December – time to be confirmed
Keen on planting trees and getting active about the future? Come to our Eden Festival of Action to help us regreen the Garden Route.
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Greenpop Foundation NPC is a registered non-profit organisation. Registration Number (NPO): 151-411 NPO.