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Learning from waste

By Sesethu Jelwana, 28th July 2023

How Shark Spotters uses single-use plastic for marine education

Have you ever wondered where all the plastic we use ends up? Well, of the 400 million tons produced annually, about 14 million tons end up in the ocean. That is 3,5% of plastic, which may seem small, but that has huge implications for the environment

Plastic pollution in our oceans has become one of the most pressing environmental issues requiring urgent action. The problem with plastic is its long-life span, meaning it can take hundreds of years to degrade.

The Lifecycle of Plastics. Graphic © World Wildlife Fund Australia

Research has shown that plastic does not fully degrade but rather breaks down into microplastics that remain in the environment. Microplastics are the small particles of plastic that are created through the mechanical breakdown of plastic by the sun, wind and wave action.

All the plastic that ends up in the sea has negative impacts on the health of our ocean ecosystems and human health. Plastic pollution causes harm to marine life. We all have seen the gruesome images of animals entangled in plastic, but we may not see the infection and internal injuries that marine animals have due to ingesting plastic. This is all happening at the cost of our biodiversity as ~700 marine species are affected by plastic pollution, and nearly 17% of these species are on the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The threat posed by plastic pollution to human health is through the ingestion of microplastics. Because of how small and easy-to-transport microplastics are, they have been found in municipal drinking water and soil. They are also being passed through the food chain when humans consume marine life that may have fed on plastic. Plastic materials are carcinogenic and direly affect the human body’s systems.

You may wonder where all of this plastic comes from. It comes from single-use plastics such as plastic bags, food wrappers, plastic bottles, etc. The convenience of single-use plastics is that you can throw them away after use, but this throw-away culture means that 40% of plastic produced each year is single-use. The biggest problem is that we do not dispose of these products properly and do not have efficient recycling systems in place, especially in developing countries like South Africa. Municipalities are facing a number of challenges in terms of managing landfill sites so the plastic we may think we disposed of correctly still ends up in our waterways and eventually in the ocean.

Degrading plastic picked up on a Cape Town beach. Photo © Jamila Janna | Shark Spotters

So as a marine conservation organization, part of our work at Shark Spotters is raising awareness about environmental issues such as plastic pollution. We also try to encourage people to find simple and practical solutions to managing their plastic waste. One of how we contribute to finding solutions to plastic pollution is through running beach clean-ups in which the local community can become part of the solution. These beach clean-ups are the little we can do to curb plastic from getting into the ocean.

The Shark Spotters conducting a beach clean-up at popular Cape Town beach, Surfers Corner, Muizenberg. Photo © Jamila Janna | Shark Spotters

Another way in which we help with plastic pollution is through recycling. Our education team has devised innovative ways to use household waste to create interactive games and activities for our programmes. We ask our local community to recycle and send us their household waste, such as coffee glass containers, yoghurt tubs, toilet paper rolls, etc. All this waste is cleaned and used to create educational resources.

There are many ways in which we can keep plastic out of the ocean. The Plastic Free July movement offers so many ways in which you can be part of the solution to plastic pollution. The idea behind the movement is to take the challenge during the month of July, where you refuse single-use plastics in hopes that you find better alternatives and start finding new, more environmentally friendly habits.

In this month of July, I challenge all of us to become part of the movement and reduce single-use plastics. To start you off, I would like to share five activities/games which use recycled materials and may help combat plastic pollution. We use these activities in our educational programmes, and kids seem to have so much fun with them, so I hope parents can try them out at home with their kids.


5 Fun Activities/Games to help fight plastic pollution.

  1. Using yoghurt tubs to build sandcastles at the beach. You can make it a sandcastle competition! (Image 4)
  2. Using recycled pvc pipes for water-saving games. Make holes in PVC pipes, and the kids must try to save as much water as possible by closing the holes while filling the pipes with water. We normally play this activity at the beach and collect water from the sea.
  3. Beach scavenger hunt. Create a beach scavenger hunt list of items they must collect at the beach. We then incorporate litter as one of the items they must collect. The kids end up picking up some litter while having fun!
  4. Ocean in a bottle experiment. This is a fun experiment where kids can create their own ocean using recycled water bottles. This helps illustrate the processes that occur in the ocean. They can add sand, rocks, shells, and water to the bottle.
  5. The last activity would be making their own binoculars using toilet paper rolls. They can help the Shark Spotters spot marine life from our shores or on the mountains whenever they visit!

    The education team and kids from a local school doing an activity at the beach using reused yogurt tubs. Photo © Jamila Janna

Let us know if you try any of these activities/games on our social media.

Instagram: @sharkspotters

Twitter: @sharkspotters

Facebook: Shark Spotters

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