Former dolphin trainer and penguin keeper Hayley McLellan is on her way to East London on a quest to diminish the use of plastic bags, which are clogging the oceans and choking the earth.
McLellan, an environmental campaigner at Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, who embarked on a personal mission to cut plastic shopping bags out of her own life in 2007, now runs the Rethink the Plastic Bag campaign.
The aim is to get these bags banned countrywide.
“We use about eight billion plastic shopping bags every year in South Africa.
“They are used for about 20 minutes before they are discarded, but they last in the sea for ever,” said McLellan, who has been on the Rethink the Plastic Bag awareness campaign road trip which began in Muizenberg in the Western Cape and ends with her talk at Merrifield School on Friday evening.
“Before I gave up plastic shopping bags I was great at using them for bin liners, but this meant they ended up at landfills. We are the only species that creates waste [that is not biodegradeable]. We are operating from a very low platform as consumers and must stop throwing things away.”
McLellan said using reusable bags to pack groceries and other purchases brings a sense of pride and is rewarding.
“So many people are proud of their homes and need to transfer that pride to the environment as well.”
She said there was a global movement to ban plastic shopping bags, which may end up in the stomachs of marine creatures who mistake them for food, and her campaign is aimed at creating plastic-shopping-bag-free towns.
“Marine animals don’t have hands so they use beaks and mouths to test bags or play with them. If two dolphins play with a bag, one will swallow it. I used to train dolphins and I know them.
“Turtles eat the bags because they resemble jelly fish and when the turtle dies and decomposes the bag just lives on to create more havoc.
“But they don’t just affect the ocean – cows also swallow plastic bags.
“Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008 because the plastic was ruining their crops.”
McLellan said the strategy to charge for plastic shopping bags at tills had initially reduced use.
“There was a dip, but their use is right back up there.”
She said the levy government charged per bag was about to go up by 50% from six cents per bag to 12 cents, pushing the overall price per bag up to more than 70 cents per bag. She said only a fraction of the levy money raised was being used on environmental projects like waste management.
“People say banning the bags penalises the poor but people could save so much every year by using re-usable bags.
“Also, making reusable bags can employ people who can recycle old curtains, billboard signs and other fabric off-cuts to make re-usable bags.”
She said schools were signing up to becoming plastic bag-free zones. “I will work with them to help them. By adopting this policy the idea will spill over into homes.
“If we don’t ban bags then by 2050 there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
McLellan said a big breakthrough in the Rethink the Bag campaign was the decision by 70 branches of Bargain Books to stop using plastic bags. She was also “thrilled and impressed” with Buffalo City Municipality’s five-day “Say No to Plastic Shopping Bags” campaign this week during which reusable cloth bags are being distributed to shoppers in East London, Mdantsane and King William’s Town.
“R200000 has been set aside for this campaign,” said BCM spokesman Samkelo Ngwenya.
“We are hoping that the public will become aware of the impact that plastic has on the environment and that they will change behaviour and influence others in little ways to make a difference.”
lHayley McLellan’s Rethink the Bag talk takes place at the Merrifield School hall at 7pm on Friday. — firstname.lastname@example.org