Sunday Times

Biologist clutches at straws to turn back plastic tide


Her job is to burst their balloons and tell them that straws suck — but it’s all for the good of the planet.

Marine biology doctoral student Refilwe Mofokeng, 29, is determined to stop restaurant­s, retailers, industry and the public from further polluting our seas with litter. She has already persuaded the John Dory’s restaurant at Wilson Wharf’s, Durban, to stop giving customers birthday balloons.

Thanks to Mofokeng, the outlet has also promised to collect all its used plastic straws instead of throwing them in the trash. The straws will be delivered to artists at Durban’s BAT Centre to create an enormous plastic whale — yet another initiative from the woman who is determined to make a difference to the environmen­t. The whale will be used as part of a December holiday awareness campaign aimed at removing plastic from the ocean.

While Mofokeng is at the forefront of the war against plastics, she is certainly not fighting alone.

Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium has launched efforts to create awareness about the problem — something that spokeswoma­n Renée Leeuwner said many South Africans simply weren’t aware of.

It is estimated there are more than 150 million tons of plastics in the ocean. By 2050 there will be more plastics than fish — by weight — in the ocean.

It is illegal to release balloons, she says, but few people are aware of this.

The National Environmen­tal Management Act imposes a duty of care on every person to take reasonable measures to avoid causing significan­t pollution or degradatio­n of the environmen­t.

“When former Springbok Joost van der Westhuizen died, his fans advertised a mass release of balloons in his honour,” said Leeuwner.

“When the impact of balloons on the environmen­t was explained to J9, his foundation, they immediatel­y shut down the release.”

She said that social media was a key player in creating much-needed awareness.

“When Bob, the green turtle, was brought to us in November 2014 for rehabilita­tion, he pooped out pieces of balloons.

“We circulated a picture of the waste that came out of him on Twitter. Our picture was tweeted and retweeted by individual­s and organisati­ons around the world,” she said.

Mofokeng — a University of KwaZulu-Natal student who is doing her doctoral thesis on microplast­ics found in makeup, toothpaste and detergents — set up an NGO last year to create public awareness of the amount of pollution, specifical­ly plastics, in the ocean.

“I started it after the big storms in 2016. I saw footage of all the plastics washed out to sea and thought: ‘Enough is enough.’ We can’t keep complainin­g and blaming others. We need to take responsibi­lity.”

Thanks to people like Mofokeng, public awareness is growing.

Eddie Moyo, the manager at John Dory’s at Wilson’s Wharf, said they had been distributi­ng up to 200 balloons a month. These have now been replaced with lucky packets.

“Currently we cannot stop giving out straws, but we are collecting them for the sculpture. The artists will need thousands of straws,” said Moyo.

Other restaurant­s and retailers are starting to follow suit.

Ocean Basket in Durban North currently sports a large notice stating that it will no longer be providing straws with drinks. It is the first branch in the franchise to do so.

In June a #StrawsMust­Fall movement started in Durban that included restaurant­s like Afro’s Chicken Shop, the KZNSA Gallery, Parc Cafe and Durban Underwater Club. Cape Town restaurant­s El Burro and Bootlegger are making use of tempered-glass straws, while Loading Bay uses glass straws. Vista Marina uses paper straws.

In Johannesbu­rg, the Bryanston Organic & Natural Market is a plastic-straw-free venue. Some restaurant­s are using bamboo straws.

Earlier this month Quarry Spar in Hilton stopped selling plastic bags and now sells paper bags instead.

Hout Bay Super Spar has committed to plastic-bag-free Thursdays in store and Kwik Spar in the same area to every second Thursday.

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 ?? Pictures: Thuli Dlamini, Jackie Clausen ?? University of KwaZulu-Natal marine biology doctoral student Refilwe Mofokeng is determined to stop the public from polluting the oceans with plastic.
Pictures: Thuli Dlamini, Jackie Clausen University of KwaZulu-Natal marine biology doctoral student Refilwe Mofokeng is determined to stop the public from polluting the oceans with plastic.

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