Whales, plastic, and lots of water

This last weekend I went to De Hoop, a nature reserve near Cape Agulhas. The whole area is a protected marine reserve, a great spot to encounter whales, and is fairly remote. Yet the beaches were covered in waste that had washed up from the sea. Mostly little pieces of plastic, but also other things, including, rather worryingly, lots of little containers containing yellow liquid sealed in something like a plastic testtube.

Plastic has been thought to be relatively stable. If you burn it, it releases toxins into the atmosphere, but on land or sea it was thought not to break down readily. In fact, this has been part of its danger at sea, as it simply breaks into smaller and smaller particles, being eaten by sea and birdlife thinking it to be food, and who then subsequently starve with an engorged stomach full of plastic.

However, recently it’s been found that plastics break down readily, even at the cold temperatures found in the sea. When they do so they release toxic byproducts. Styrofoam, for example, forms three new compounds – styrene monomer, styrene dimer and styrene trimer. The first is a known carcinogen, while the latter two are suspected to be.

Still the plastic keeps pouring into the seas.

We’re working to minimise our plastic waste. For our own packaged goods, we use bio-plastic, which is compostable, and a step above oil-based plastics. Some of our suppliers have also moved to the same, and we’re hoping the others will follow too. Of course, where possible, as little packaging as possible is good, but there’s a balance between produce spoiling more quickly due to not being packaged, and excessive packaging.

Largest solar power station in the world

The second largest solar power project in the world has just gone online. Where is it situated? Texas? The Sahara? No, it’s in Brandenburg, Germany, the world leader in solar power. If gloomy Germany can make a success of solar, there are no excuses for South Africa.

Coal and Mercury

South Africa though is a world leader in coal. Not something to be proud of, as coal power plants spew out tonnes of toxins, leaving the costs passed on down the line, especially to nearby communities, all while coal basks in its reputation as a “cheap” source of electricity. One of the toxins released is atmospheric mercury, which usually ends up back on the land and rivers after rainfall.

A recent US survey found mercury in every single river fish tested in a seven-year study. A quarter of the fish had levels which would mean moderate fish-eaters would exceed federal toxicity standards for mercury. Levels are even worse near areas that once had active mines, even years after the mines have closed.

Meanwhile the coal keeps burning, and the mine waste keeps accumulating.

Kalk Bay collection point, and some large puddles

We have a new collection point opening in Kalk Bay this week. Details are on the site. Some of our deliveries were late this week, as our truck hit a glitch on the road. Actually, it hit a puddle in the heavy rains, and the garage wants to charge R95 000 for a new engine. I’m expecting it to run on water for that price!

Looking for a driver

Completely unrelated to the above, we’re looking for a new driver. If spending two and a half days a week driving our delicious produce around and meeting the organic community sounds appealing, or you know anyone suitable, give us a shout. Being able to avoid puddles is a bonus.

To order, head on over to www.ethical.org.za.

Have a stunning week,
the Ethical Co-op team

Comments ( 5 )

  1. Karoline

    Hi Ian I have also had the same experience at De Hoop. Last year sometime,.....one of the beaches literally smothered in plastic bottles....we tried picking up as many as we could, but ran out of arms, bags, etc. HECTIC! Took loads of pics with a view to sending to Cape Nature for follow up, but never did. Guess when its a dumping at sea issue, difficult to control, but they really should be cleaning up anyway! Those containers you saw are fishing floats...I sometimes see them on Noordhoek beach and once asked around and that's what they are. Something to do with glowing at night - hence the liquid inside... All rather charming. Have a good plastic free weekend! Karoline

  2. Lee-sa

    Dear Ethical Thank you for a great service with great products. I love receiving these weekly newsletters and find them most interesting. Todays one though touches on a subject that I think has been severely misunderstood. The plastic industry. I work in research and development in polymer chemistry and part of the work we do in our lab is researching 'bio' plastic products-trying to come up with ethically sound ways of packaging food and other products that are both economical and viable solutions to the worlds big plastic problem. There are a few points in your article that I felt were misleading. It is true that plastics breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces and end up in our food chain causing huge problems but it is not true though that burning plastics releases huge amounts of toxins (I assume here you are referring to Dioxins?) In fact, if the temperature at which plastics are burnt is kept high then the dioxin emission can be even less than that released from burning wood. Also most plastics are made of high density polypropylene which is recyclable, not polystyrene. Polypropylene breaks down into smaller pieces after many years but never reverts back to monomer stage and is thus not toxic-it is the problem of bulk that is killing the oceans not the toxins from plastics. Foam products such as Styrofoam are indeed made from Styrene monomers forming dimers and trimers but in the huge plastic industry this is a small area. It is true that Styrene is carcinogenic but the polymers of styrene are not. Polyolefin's (oil based) are actually of greater concern than styrene or polypropylene to the environment. The polymers that make up plastic of all kinds break down whether they are 'bio' plastics or not and the line between a 'good' plastic and a 'bad' plastic is very thin. If a plastic product says bio gradable or compostable it will have conditions e.g. after 10years, at a certain temperature for a specified time, photodegradable etc and these conditions are rarely ever specified on packaging but without it the product may very well not degrade any better than the 'bad' plastic. Good news is we are working on it as are thousands of laboratories all over the world!

  3. Thea

    Thanks to you all. I appreciate these communications. I walked the De Hoop Trail twice; it is one of the most awesome, scenic spots on our coast.. The battle with and agianst invaders in an around Potberg however remains a problem that seems almost unchanged over the last five years; one would hope that some of the money paid by trail walkers would go some way to rid the area of Wattles and Port Jackson; such water guzzlers offering little to birds and no thing grows under or near them..... I also saw evidence of plastic containers on the beach at De Hoop; some very foreign looking stuff (Chinese Script). Minimising plastic waste is imperative. Our family have enjoyed the produce you have sent. We have been away but will be ordering again next week. Go well and enjoy the lovely sweet rain.. Thea

  4. dagny warmerdam

    hi Ethical co-op team... just a mention on the worrying little plastic 'test tube' containers that have yellow liquid inside.... these are the things that divers....those that do night dives, clip onto their tanks so that they can see each other underwater. when you purchase them, they are inert and you 'crack' them and then shake the liquid up to make it light up in a neon colour, visibly underwater. I do not know what the properties of these tubes are in terms of environmental impact, but it certainly is sad that they are simply left behind once the divers have finished enjoying the beauty of our oceans. sometimes they simply fall off, but again, they should be secured and responsible diving should be enforced somehow. perhaps you can do an expose of them...and let the diving community know that they really should be more responsible. thanks for all the great info and products. best regards, dagny warmerdam

  5. Maretha

    Discussing packaging - why don't you give clients the opportunity to send the cardboard boxes in which you deliver your produce, back to you so it can be reused? I always feel guilty when I place the box in the recycle bin after being used only once, but I have no space in my tiny apartment to store it. One could just bring the previous week's cardboard box back to the delivery point when collecting the next weeks veggies and the truck can pick it up while making deliveries.