Over the last 50 years it is estimated that
we have dumped some 50 million tonnes of plastic and other waste materials into
the oceans. Just the amount of beach
cleanups that happen across the country every weekend is testament to the
constant stream of rubbish that is out there floating about in the oceans. But
it’s not just plastic that ends up in our waterways. Wastewater, or any water
that contains what is effectively human sewerage, has a massive impact on human
health, ecosystems and never mind the potentially interesting pathogens that
might tag along with it. A very
concentrated example of this is the two Nigerian waterfront front communities
of Makoko Waterfront in Lagos and Chicoco in Port Harcourt where there is
little infrastructure that cannot support the effective waste management that
comes from some 85,000 residents occupying every square inch of land. Al
Jazeera put together this interesting report and footage of the area (link Here)
Now, this is an extreme example mind you. We
don’t have nearly the same problem here in South Africa, but it’s always good
to see the far end of the spectrum of what serious waste mismanagement can look
like. Back to home and in Cape Town the Department of Waste and Sanitation is
responsible in South Africa for overseeing the effective, appropriate and environmentally sustainable removal of
human waste. A lot of the waste we
have gets pumped out into the sea around Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Green Point and
Robben Island. But lately arial photographs taken by marine photographer
Jean Tresfon show large plumes of apparently untreated effluent that every so often waft into the shorelines along the city of Cape Ton’s coastlines.
Spike of Wavescape put together this
stellar article on the recent photographs that have been circulating on Facebook
around the City of Cape Town. It’s an absolutely fascinating and
well-researched read and worth hitting the link if you really want a good
understanding on the issues at play here. He said it so well there is no need
for me to repeat here so follow THIS link for the article.
And that got me thinking back to last year
when I asked a very talented friend of mine to do a guest post for this website,
and aptly it appeared on my computer screen just as I was reading about the
plumes off Hout Bay. Bernelle is a Bioprocess Engineer and known around town as
bit of a water maverick and all round disrupter. She somehow always manages to
shift the bigger system by pushing hard against existing structures and if you
have ever been to a braai with her you would know she is a firm believer an
integrated approach to education, resource management and profitability is
I think her words are pretty fitting to add
into the discussions around waste management.
World Design Capital, shit and the sea.
What do you think when I tell you that the
Baltic sea (the Gulf of Finland to be exact) has eutrophied at least once
(eutrophied basically means it’s rotten, like an overflowing sewer), and that
50 million litres of sewage is dumped into the sea at Sea Point in Cape Town
every day, (and at Camps Bay, and at Lundudno…) or that Milan, Italy only built
their first sewage treatment works in 2003?
Cities are complex places. While there are
some people who try to break the way things work, in general people try to make
all the bits and pieces in a city fit together to make it a habitable place.
But no one really designed the cities we live in; they just grew and took shape
based on what happened to, in and around them. This created a system that
doesn’t work so well, and that is close to impossible to fix with single point
One of these challenges is where our wastes
go. Back when we were aquatic apes, right up to just before the invention of
railways (watch Carolyn Steel’s TED Talk for the whole story), we could
practically defecate anywhere and nature’s processes could clean it up. As
settlements grew, the wastes were flushed into rivers and made their way into
the sea, but this still wasn’t a problem. There were enough buffers to absorb
these extra nutrients, and as this was before the industrial revolution, there
wasn’t that much heavy metals and pollutants that the natural processes
But with railways came the means to
transport food and other resources into cities faster, which allowed for more
people to converge in one place, and this meant that more wastes were produced.
People were used to flushing it into the rivers and the sea, so that’s what
they kept doing, but the natural systems could no longer support this.
In some areas this created enough of a
problem to warrant attention (like London’s Great Stink of 1858), but in most
other places sewage remains something that is conveniently out of mind, left to
go somewhere else, where it causes damage. This was not designed to be this way, or an
oversight. It was just the way cities developed. But the way we treat our waste
could be designed better, and with Cape Town now having been awarded World
Design Capital 2014, this is a good place to start. My advice would be to look
at how the Netherlands, with their high population density and below sea-level
elevation, have learnt how to deal with sanitation.
Sea shit. Not something most people think
And when I tell you that the Baltic sea
(the Gulf of Finland to be exact) has eutrophied at least once (eutrophied
basically means it’s rotten, like an overflowing sewer), and that 50 million
litres of sewage is dumped into the sea at Sea Point in Cape Town every day,
(and at Camps Bay, and at Lundudno) or that Milan, Italy only built their first
sewage treatment works in 2003, you’ll probably do one of two things: Either
you will recoil in horror and find another conversation companion (hint, don’t
use sea shit as a pick up line), or you will talk about your sea shit related
experiences. We all have at least one.
But when I tell you that sea shit could be
gold, what would you do then? In my tested experience, stare at me with an incredulous
smile, most likely. I am a bioprocess engineer, and I look at how nature does
things, compare that with how people – more specifically chemical engineers do
things, and try to find ways that work with both nature and engineers that help
both function better.
I want to focus on two things that nature
1. It doesn’t believe in waste. IT finds a
use for everything, even when things are in a very deep imbalance. Even in that
rotten Baltic sea, things find ways to grow. It may not look or smell good to
us, but somewhere in that green brown soup, something is as happy as a pig in
2. Nature usually works in much more dilute
concentrations than engineers do. The oceans are far more dilute than your
average brewing vessel, or chemical plant. This means that when we dump all
that sewage in the sea, it’s going to change the way things usually work there.
Something will find a way to make use of it (see point 1), but it may not work
well for what we believe is a good balance.
Chemical engineers on the other hand, while
they…..uhm…..can improve on a lot of what they do, they also have a very good
way of understanding the world, and getting processes to make something that
can add value. So if we can get engineers to think a bit more like nature – specifically
that shit is valuable and not a waste, and so should not be dumped into the
sea, and that even if sewage is lots more dilute than, say, your glass of wine,
but compares in some ways to a mine, then we could get somewhere.
So that’s what I work on.
And if you want another story, I could tell
you how it came to be that we dumped shit in the sea in the first place. Or if
you like reading longer stories, get Rose George’s book ‘ The Big Necessity:
Adventures in the World of Human Waste’.
Follow Bernelle’s work at:
So while waste management is the main issue
here, one should also start thinking about waste in general and how we manage
our own personal waste. Hey every little bit counts right? There is also no
better time than now to start as September is the Clean-Up South Africa month
and the 19th is International Costal Cleanup day- so if you were
thinking of making your own personal changes, even if it is just in the
recycling department than September is a good time to start.
Some Resources from Bernelle:
Wikipedia: London Sewerage
Newstatesman: I've seen fartbags you people wouldn't believe
Rose George: The Big Necessity
Sewage into sea: IOL report
And extra reading to take home:
Application to discharge effluent into the
coastal waters of Cape Town: Public Participation process from 1 June to 10
Here a young lass in New York City, called
Lauren Singer, has found a way to live a Zero waste lifestyle. Now while this
might not be practice for everyone and lets be honest she looks like a bit of a
hipster, but some of her recycling tips and ideas are pretty nifty.
I found this
interesting little clip online that gives an easy, simple understanding of what
wastewater is: Two Minutes on Oceans with Jim Toomey: Wastewater
FLOW: For the love of Water
Beach clean ups near you:
Clean Up South Africa