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Trash...bagged in 67 minutes

Inspired by Mandela Day, a diverse group of environmental champions gathered near a polluted canal in Athlone, Cape Town, for an epic clean-up which proved more than a handful for some and an eye-opener for all.

© WWF South Africa
The WWF team poses with 182 bags of trash collected on Nelson Mandela Day 2019

My first roadblock was a pile of used nappies.

“We need a stick,” said one of the volunteers. And indeed a stick was what enabled me to gingerly pick up the nappies one by one and plop them into a bag, along with chip packets, the remains of a car light, a shoe and countless nameless bits and bobs.

Armed with yellow bags for waste and white reusable bags for recycling, around 180 school children and adults had fanned out across a 5-ha field abutting the Black River Canal in Athlone, Cape Town next to the Cape Town Association for the Physically Disabled.

© WWF South Africa/Ruan Wolfaardt
Environmental Minister Barbara Creecy is welcomed by WWF-SA CEO Dr Morné du Plessis on her arrival in Athlone

Out on the same field was our new environmental minister Barbara Creecy who had volunteered to roll up her sleeves for the Nelson Mandela Day event. She had gathered around her an “A-team” of school children helping her to get the job done.

My clean-up buddy was 13-year-old Lucky Maxengana from Cypress Primary School. Lucky lives in Langa, across the highway, and walks across this field to school every day. Together we managed to fill two big bags – and I learnt about how he likes maths, science and natural sciences – all good subjects for an environmental career.

Elsewhere, volunteers from Help Up, Sea the Bigger Picture and the Friends of the Liesbeek had suited up to climb into the Black River Canal itself for the dirtiest work of the day. This requires special protective clothing and a strong stomach.

© WWF South Africa/Ruan Wolfaardt
Cleaning up a dirty river requires special gear

At the end of the exercise, we all gathered in the association hall to reflect on what we’d discovered – and the challenges going forward. Barbara Creecy told the children that they were now part of a new struggle – the struggle to save the planet – and she encouraged them to follow in Nelson Mandela’s example of service to the people around us.

In all, we collected 182 bags of rubbish – the bulk of which was not recyclables – and we were all well aware that we had hardly scratched the surface.

It was a real lesson in how much work needs to be done to stop all this waste finding its way into the system in the first place.

© WWF South Africa
Children from Cypress Primary School work close to their school grounds

A big thank you to all involved – in particular the Cape Town Association for the Physically Disabled in Bridgetown, Athlone, and their volunteers who kickstarted the process and the WWF interns who organised the event. Thanks too to Woolworths and Plastics SA for sponsoring food and gloves, as well as all the participants, including Help Up, the Cape Town Environmental Education Trust, Sea the Bigger Picture, Friends of the Liesbeek, Euphoria Telecom, HIS Markit, Cypress Primary and volunteers.

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss, Media Manager

Andrea Weiss is the Media Manager with WWF South Africa and loves getting her hands dirty for nature.

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