What a waste!

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 achievable.


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 solutions.
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 couldn’t absorb.
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 about.
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 does:

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 shit.
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:






Twitter: @indiebio


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 


Milan link

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 July.


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:


Cape Town




Port Elizabeth 


Clean Up South Africa







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  • 2015-09-30 15:59:38

    Well said! Waste and rubbish mismanagement is a real problem nowadays and the only way to fight is by start thinking instead of consuming! Unfortunately, this is not an overnight process and each of us should make a step to the right direction by reducing their waste to the minimum. Greetings, Rubbish Clearance Bromley Ltd.