Durban floods: Profiting from plastic

The recent floods saw tonnes of waste washed into Durban’s harbour. For the homeless, it was an opportunity to earn a much-needed buck from recycling centres.

The horror of flooding with fatalities in KwaZulu-Natal this week had politicians out in force, eager to cluck in sympathy with those who had lost loved ones.

A sideshow to the deluge was the plastic pollution that washed ashore and appeared in a sickening swirl in Durban’s harbour – hundreds of tonnes of waste vomited out of rivers and clogged drains, pooling in grotesque wharfside swathes.

This prompted a grim slideshow on social media and critics of the eThekwini council got stuck into the City of Durban over its failures around waste separation and recycling. But the junk was a boon for homeless men Gift Luthuli and Nthuthuko Khuzwayo. They used it as a chance to earn a much-needed buck.

At low tide, the men waded into the bay beside Wilson’s Wharf, where the garbage provided ripe pickings.

Filling their 1m³ bulk bags mostly with empty cooldrink bottles, they hoisted the harvest on to their heads and dodged traffic to get to a recycling centre in Victoria Street. There, they were paid R25 a load.

“Hey, it’s small money,” said Khuzwayo, “but at least we can buy something to eat. Things are bad, we live on the street.”

The men said they could each manage three loads a day.

24 April 2019: Homeless people are sorting through the deluge of rubbish washed into Durban’s harbour to find recyclable waste to sell.

‘Part of the solution’

Homeless people like Khuzwayo and Luthuli are keeping Durban clean. Although you wouldn’t think so, speaking to City politicians who this month released a safety and security focus that non-governmental agencies (NGOs) have condemned.

NGOs and others working with the 4 000 people who sleep rough in Durban’s central business district, said that for too long the municipality ran “clean-up” campaigns that targeted the homeless. Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip said it was, “as if the homeless are litter to be swept away, ignoring the fact that they have a right to live in safety like any other residents”.

Like all residents, the homeless would benefit from a cleaner and safer city and could be engaged to help, Phillip said.

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Raymond Perrier, director of the Denis Hurley Centre, which helps hundreds of homeless people every week, said: “We’ve said this over and over again, the homeless are part of the solution, not the problem.”

Environmental NGO Wildlands Conservation Trust is already proving this statement true. It employs around 50 people a day for clean-ups at different sites, such as the iconic Blue Lagoon at the Umgeni River mouth.

Every day, their haul includes plastic receptacles for everything from water to juice, milk, butter, yoghurt, shampoo and a multitude of cosmetics. The horrible, garishly coloured knot of junk includes tyres, plastic furniture, glass bottles, shoes, sanitary ware and polystyrene.

Rachel Kramer from Wildlands said the teams had been active since last year but had hit the hot spots since the floods. “It’s unbelievable how much junk there is. The harbour is a waste trap.”

24 April 2019: Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip said the homeless, like other residents of Durban, would benefit from a cleaner and safer city and could be engaged to help.

Upstream problem

State-owned rail, port and pipeline company Transnet said three rivers and 57 stormwater drains feed into the harbour.

For Kramer, the volume of waste is indicative of a problem upstream. “More waste separation at source would be fantastic. Recycling would be easier before this reaches the marine environment.”

Floods and the resultant plastic purge highlighted the problem. “Pictures are widely shared on social media. That’s the silver lining. People want to do clean-ups, which is great.”

Kramer said eThekwini needs more capable waste separation systems.

Andrew Mather, the City’s head of coastal policy, agreed: “Our solutions are suboptimal. We are not reacting properly.”

Mather has worked for the council for 32 years and said he has “never seen plastics on the scale we are seeing now”.

24 April 2019: Head of coastal policy Andrew Mather said plastic that ends up in the harbour and on the beach represents about 20% of what makes it into the water as ‘plastic bottles with lids float … the rest sinks’.

Inexhaustible supply of plastic

Nokuzola Nkowane, Durban’s acting port manager, said Transnet couldn’t estimate how much pollution had washed into the harbour. Recycling initiatives like Wildlands’ would quantify it, Nkowane said.

Wildlands recycling manager Hanno Langenhoven said the bags Luthuli and Khuzwayo use weigh about 40kg when filled with plastic, adding that there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of the material.

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In a routine clean-up in the harbour over four months last year, 50 workers retrieved 20 tonnes of plastic, which when piled together was a massive volume.

Mather said the City ought to consider putting a price on cold drink bottles. “Maybe the City needs to think about monetising the collection. The clean-ups are commendable, but that’s like giving someone with a brain tumour a headache tablet.”

Mather said plastic that ends up in the harbour and on the beach represents about 20% of what makes it into the water. “Plastic bottles with lids float because they have air in them. The rest sinks and it is out of sight and out of mind.”

Orange bag initiative

Critics have roasted the eThekwini Municipality for the past three years over the award of a dodgy tender – since retracted – to a company to supply orange bags to residents to store separated waste for recycling.

The City has since blacklisted Persian Star Investments 11 CC and, last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the Special Investigating Unit to probe the R90 million tender awarded in 2015.

Environmentalist Chris Whyte from non-profit organisation Use-it said that at its peak, the orange bag initiative saw 10 500 tonnes of recyclable waste diverted from landfill. This is a paltry 0.6% of the city’s waste. If done properly, it could harvest about 15%, he said.

Langenhoven estimates that the clean-up after the recent floods will see about 3 000 bulk bags filled in the port and along the Umgeni River.

Perrier, who is also the chair of the eThekwini task team for the homeless, said the City was missing a trick. “Homeless people aren’t responsible for the mess. They don’t have anything to throw away … They have many eager hands and there is lots of work to do.”

This might be one way to help the homeless. Abducting them, “stealing their belongings and bulldozing or burning their meagre dwellings” isn’t the way to go, Phillip said.

The attitude of some officials, he added, was marked by “callous indifference” that further marginalises the homeless.

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