Waste in the Water — Transition Pathways through a Wicked Problem

The proliferation of synthetic litter in the False Bay Waterways, Oceans & Beaches Cape Town, South Africa

An Academic Essay for the Ecological Design Thinking Postgraduate Programme Schumacher College, United Kingdom Module 2 Assignment: Design & Society By Devon Concar, 18th December 2020

‘Identity is conferred upon us by places — where we are right now and who we are with, other species and humans in place’ (Sepie, 2020).

Amba Sepie, Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, has been conducting studies into indigenous cultures around the world for over 10 years. Cultures and communities she describes as having an ’Earth-oriented ethic’ and who ‘specifically employ a way of being that is in concert with the ecological environment’ (Sepie, 2020). Through her research, she asserts that the places we live and our relationships with these places form an intrinsic part of our identity. Or as the poet, psychologist, medical doctor and naturalist Dr Ian McCallum asserts, ‘The identity you and I seek for ourselves is impossible to define outside of our relationships. Not only human to human but to the animals, to the landscapes, to the forests, the oceans and the rivers in our lives’ (McCallum, 2016).

One bioregion humans are relating with is False Bay, ‘a site of considerable socio-ecological importance in Cape Town, South Africa’ (Pfaff, 2019). This paper aims to explore a particular manifestation of the local human community’s relations with this area; the proliferation of synthetic litter in its waterways, oceans & beaches. The 2020 results of a series of surveys, conducted by a research department at the University of Cape Town, showed that ‘more than one new litter item per day per meter is added to Cape Town’s coastline’ (Ryan et al., 2020), that is 1,367 new items per day along 1,050m of surveyed beaches. Beaches have been chosen as the “stage” for witnessing the result of a complex system leading to the proliferation of synthetic packaging in the area, as they are commonplaces for litter to be deposited and the most accessible for the purposes of this study. It must be acknowledged that deep-sea synthetic waste and micro-plastics represent a significant, long-term result of this problem but do not form part of this paper.

Through investigation and mapping of what can be described as a wicked problem, and gaining understanding of its complexity, potential pathways to transition are then described. If a process of transition, away from an exploitative and pollutive relationship with the bioregion can be followed, it may be argued that the identity of the local human community would be enriched by a closer symbiosis to the place and species they live with.

Complexity Thinking for a Wicked Problem

A wicked problem has been described as; ‘difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem’ (Churchman, 1967). The problem of synthetic litter in False Bay waterways, oceans and beaches is certainly a wicked one, with a range of contributing factors, at different levels of society; from technical (production properties and distance from source) to human-social (supply chain of consumables and packaging), to environmental (wind, currents and effects on biodiversity), to individual (values and behaviour), to economic (preservation of goods and cost of production) to local and national policy (or lack thereof).

The manifestation of this wicked problem can be described to be born out of a socio-technical system, defined to ‘consist of a cluster of elements, including technology, regulation, user practices and markets, cultural meaning, infrastructure, maintenance networks and supply networks’ (Geels, 2005). With such a variety of dynamic elements, it is useful to use complexity thinking in addressing the problem within its context. Complexity thinking ‘helps us to address apparently intractable problems’ (Middleton-Kelly, 2020). The approach helps us to acknowledge that complex problems are not results of a single cause or dimension (just cultural or technical or financial, for example). Further to identifying and acknowledging the variety of elements within a complex system, applying Systems Thinking offers us the opportunity to notice leverage points for adjusting the system. ‘It helps to understand that small adjustments can drastically change a system (Letcher, 2020)’.

Mapping the Problem

A critical step, therefore, towards understanding how and why synthetic packaging is found so abundantly on False Bay beaches, was to conduct research on existing scientific articles and publicly accessible data on the subject, as well as in the form of interviews with supply chain stakeholders, research scientists and run local community surveys. In doing so, the visualisation of the “nodes” of the problem then becomes possible through a mapping exercise. Using the Miro whiteboard tool, the problem has been depicted with two distinct aspects; the production and the distribution of synthetic waste in the area. The map (below) indicates different factors considered, as well as perceived connections/interactions between them.

Some key takeaways for identifying leverage points for change from this mapping exercise are:

  • There are 4 main sources for synthetic waste found of Cape Town’s beaches:
    1) litter from local land-based sources washing ashore through the stormwater system (primary source)
    2) littering by beachgoers
    3) litter dumped from ships
    4) long-distance drift from other parts of the world
  • Plastic items accounted for 85% to 94% mass of waste
  • 94% of this is locally produced (in South Africa)
  • On-the-go food wrappers account for virtually all food packaging
  • There are only a few major producers of packaging for on-the-go food items (outside of large retail outlets)
  • Local community awareness is high as to the environmental, economic, social and health impacts
  • Scientific data collection and publishing is being conducted by local universities and NGOs
  • A community perception is prevalent that access to data on the problem is low
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations were gazetted for the first time in November 2020
  • Plastic leakage in the form of litter and illegal dumping is symptomatic of a weak and fragmented waste management system
  • Large chain-store retail managers don’t have flexibility in the choices of packaging for items they stock, it is largely defined by 3rd party suppliers of consumables
  • A large majority of the local community (80%) fall into the two categories of “partner of” or “participant with” nature (Zweers, 2000), with the mindset that their convenience is secondary to the health of the ecosystem

Pathways to transition

If the concept of ‘socio-technical regimes’, within such systems can loosely help us understand that social groups across the span of a society interact by a set of rules, and that those rules are reinforced and changed through action and enactment (Geels, 2005). We can analyse the interactions between key social groups for opportunities to enact change within the entire system. In the case of this wicked problem, interactions between plastic packaging producers, distributors, scientists, users, policy makers and False Bay residents are useful leverage points to consider with the ambition of wanting to enact change. It is also clear, then, that a multi-level perspective would need to be adopted should any significant, concerted change be able to be brought about. Following that ‘a key point of the multi-level perspective (MLP) is that transitions come about through the interplay between processes at different levels’ (Geels, 2005), some leverage-points within the system will now be described.

Leverage points

Biodegradable Packaging Alternatives
One of the fundamental factors of this wicked problem is that plastic materials are versatile, durable and produced at a comparatively low cost, often even cheaper than recycled materials (Sadan & de Kock, 2020). A report published this month, by WWF South Africa, entitled Plastics: Facts and Futures. Moving Beyond Pollution Management Towards Circular Plastics Economy in South Africa, begins with a point that plastic, ‘provides value across several industries’ but also that ‘its strength and durability have resulted in widespread persistence in the environment’ (Sadan & de Kock, 2020). The technical development and adoption of alternatives is a leverage point that readily comes to mind, but should not be considered as a “magic wand” to the problem. ‘Technology plays an important role in fulfilling societal functions, but artefacts only fulfil functions in association with human agency and social structures’ (Geels, 2005). One example is the alternative offerings that a local major retail outlet provides shoppers in the village of Muizenberg. Cashback incentives and readily available recycled and compostable brown bags are often an option consumers don’t opt for (Williams, 2020). The slight increase in cost to the customer may play a role in this, or it may be a force of habit. ‘Existing socio-technical systems are characterized by stability and lock-in’ and ‘… are also stabilized because they are embedded in society. People adapt their lifestyles to them’ (Geels, 2005). The technical development of alternative options can play a part in the mix of interventions but must be applied with accompanying initiatives.

Governmental policies and regulations
The fact that 94% of plastic litter found on Cape Town’s beaches is produced locally in South Africa, with only a small percentage making its way across ocean expanses from Asia, primarily Indonesia (Ryan et al., 2020), indicates a leverage opportunity by way of governing bodies within the country. The African Marine Waste Network indicates that one of the major shortfalls in addressing the problem of human waste within Africa’s marine environments is the ‘lack of synchronized policy strategy and enforcement’ (Barnardo et al., 2020). South Africa is in a unique position to improve on this shortfall, with new policy being gazetted by government in November 2020 (Ishmail, 2020). It is the first of its kind Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation in the country and represents ‘a first step to ensure … producers and companies placing packaging on the market [are] responsible for end-of-life management of that packaging’ (Ishmail, 2020).

This circular-economy approach will assist in addressing one of the nodes within the wicked problem map; the mismanagement of waste disposal in the area from a corporate, organisational perspective, but not from an end-user point. A potential player for transition within the end-user element of the problem is The Ecobrick Exchange (EBE), ‘a skills development agency set on nuturing the Green Economy in order to protect the environment from plastic, as well as create structures of value and income opportunities within under resourced communities’. They do this, ‘by using advocating waste upcycling practices such as food waste composting and EcoBricking — plastic waste compressed into PET-bottles — a highly insulating building material that is water-, fire- and even bullet-proof’ (Ecobrick Exchange, 2020). The current government gazetted policy doesn’t specify legislation on an individual level, but should the emergence of these policies on an corporate level prove to be effective, community participation in developing or expanding them could bring about clauses on individual behaviour and support initiatives like the Ecobrick Exchange.

The focus now, needs to be on enforcing these regulations, which is often found to be a failing point, as recent article in the journal Science Direct points out, ‘Despite the existence of an increasing volume of international, regional and national policies governing waste management, marine litter persists due to a lack of synchronized global and regional strategies, and poor implementation and enforcement of existing regulations’ (Harris et al., 2020).

Targeting a primary culprit, on-the-go food packaging
A variety of types of plastic, including foamed plastic and cigarette butts, that make up the 84% — 95% mass of synthetic waste found on Cape Town’s beaches. Within this, it is packaging that makes up the majority. A recent WWF report stating that, ‘Packaging is a plastic leakage hotspot. More than half — 52% — of plastic raw material produced in and imported into South Africa is used for packaging applications’ (Sadan & de Kock, 2020). One key revelation, from the 2020 lockdown litter survey conducted by Prof. Peter Ryan and his team at the University of Cape Town, is that on-the-go food packaging makes up for virtually all of this packaging. That is sweet & ice-cream wrappers, chips packets, cold drink bottles and lids, etc (Ryan et al, 2020). This presents an opportunity to address a key contribution to the problem. Through an interview with Prof. Ryan, it was revealed that large retail outlets aren’t generally the source for these items in the False Bay area, as the items they stock (recognisable brands like Simba chips) aren’t as prevalent as items from smaller independent outlets on street corners. A primary producer of this type of packaging is Truda Foods, based in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal (over 1,500km away). Working with major producers like Truda Foods in addressing the problem could serve as an effective leverage point within this socio-technical system.

Data on scale and trends accessible to the public
Single solutions to wicked problems cannot be designed, in complexity thinking it is an enabling environment that needs to be co-created in order for any sustainable change to occur (Middleton-Kelly, 2020). Through a local community survey conducted for the purposes of this study, it is evident that a large majority of residents consider themselves to be uninformed as to the scale and trends of synthetic packaging found in their waterways, oceans and beaches. Over 65% said that they take note of what they’re seeing, but don’t know much more than that. Throughout the continent, there is a problem with data on marine plastic waste being ‘sparse and inconsistent’ (Barnardo & Ribbink, 2020). Cape Town has an advantage in this regard, in that there are a number of entities working to gather and process data in accordance with internationally recognised guidelines. Some of these include the African Marine Waste Network, WWF South Africa, Prof. Ryan’s University of Cape Town Survey Study and local NGO’s like The Beach Co-op, who are running beach clean-up activities and pairing it with citizen science data collection. It is an innovative effort to integrate awareness with community participation (Omardien, 2020). This strong base of data availability serves as a great opportunity to leverage the system, because:

‘Socio-technical systems are actively created, (re)produced and refined by several social groups, for instance, firms, universities and knowledge institutes, public authorities, public interest groups and users. Their activities reproduce the elements and linkages in sociotechnical systems. These social groups have their own vested interests, problem perceptions, values, preferences, strategies and resources (money, knowledge and contacts). This implies that transitions are multi-actor processes that involve interactions between many social groups’ (Geels, 2005).

Data on scale and trends could be made more accessible to a larger variety of social groups, by notice boards at popular beach and gathering locations as well as specifically appropriate, and active, in-person and online community forums. An enabling environment could be created for community members to make informed actions in addressing the problem. It would enable them to adopt “Life’s Principles” of ‘self-organisation’ to be more ‘locally attuned and responsive’ to their surrounding environment, as described by the practice of Biomimicry (Benyus, 1997).

It is not just accessibility in terms of delivery of the data, but equally important is the display design of the information within the data. One challenge is that it is a ‘big, complicated data set’ (Ryan, 2020) and processing the data is a significant task within itself. Publishing raw data will not do much by way of engaging the community, though. Data must be presented in a way as to foster a relationship with the problem. The concept of warm data will be helpful in this regard, ‘warm data raises the idea of complementing decontextualized official ‘data’ with a nest of other information that can gives a sense of how any system is functioning in terms of its broader relationships and interdependencies’ (Bateson, 2020).

Whether a relationship with the problem is likely to be formed by members of the local community is a question that is not homogenous for all of its members. Different values are held by its members and at different levels of importance, with factors like socio-economic standing, disposable income, access to public spaces, environmental awareness, and more being of influence. ‘Values are important in thinking systematically about sustainability because they are understood to reflect higher-order motivations that organise the attitudes and behaviours which constitute many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives’ (Crompton, 2020). Part of the survey conducted with the local community aimed to explore values, with specific inquiry as to the perception around the convenience plastic packaging items offers to their day-to-day lives. Encouragingly a large majority of the community (80%) of the local community fall into the two categories of “partner of” or “participant with” nature (Zweers, 2000), and asserted that plastic packaging should be removed from the system, even if it meant their consumer convenience was negatively affected. Acknowledging the potential shortfalls within the survey sample, being conducted within only one internet-based (but very active) community forum, it can still be asserted that should meaningful, warm data be accessible, at various locations (physically and digitally) that a strong relationship with the problem can be fostered by the False Bay community and an enabling environment for pathways to transition can be cultivated for an earth-oriented ethic, similar the indigenous communities studied by Dr. Amba Sepie.

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Surveys & Polls:
29 responses from a local community forum questionnaire constructed for this study Cape Town: Muizenberg Notice Board 9th December 2020

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