Joburg could be clean if we all said no to littering, says the writer.

Johannesburg - It is not unusual to see a driver roll down his window, hold out a bag stuffed with fast food garbage, a soft-drink can or cigarette stub and drop it on to the street or highway, then contemptuously and fearlessly speed off.

It is also not unusual to see pedestrians or shoppers casually and shamelessly litter with all sorts of debris.

This is a simple truth that holds true across Joburg and the rest of the country.

Surely there is just no excuse for throwing garbage out of a car window when it would be just as easy to wait until the car stops and toss the item into a trash can? Surely it is not cool to simply drop litter missiles anywhere? But litterers don’t care.

Joburg’s litter is part of a worldwide waste management problem.

Just to highlight the scope of the problem, Pikitup’s annual budget is R1.39 billion. The entire budget is spent on giving effect to our waste management mandate.

And once trash gets free, wind and weather move it from streets and highways to parks and waterways.

The litter ends up in rivers such as the Jukskei, streams – all the way to our oceans.

Cigarette butts, snack wrappers, take-away food and beverage containers are the most commonly littered items. A worldwide study found that cigarettes were one of the most insidious forms of litter. The study has found that a discarded cigarette butt takes 12 years to break down, all the while leaching toxic elements such as cadmium, lead and arsenic into soil and rivers.

The burden of litter clean-up usually falls to local governments and waste management companies such as Pikitup, who are spending millions yearly to clean up.

The truth is, Joburg can be clean. With more residents individually or collectively working in conjunction with various city departments and Pikitup, a lot can be done.

I have been given the opportunity since October 2012 to lead Pikitup as its managing director.

Pikitup, as many citizens and users of our wonderful city know, is the entity that picks up waste. But it is best known for its inability to collect refuse on time, breaking residents’ refuse bins and being financially on the skids.

For this reputation, I take full accountability and will endeavour in the term that I serve to fix and rebuild the integrity of the institution together with what I believe is a formidable group of men and women who we have assembled in recent months to lead the process of fixing the organisation, fully supported by the leadership of Joburg.

Our principle approach is underpinned by the notion espoused by Albert Einstein: “A problem cannot be fixed by the same level of consciousness that created it.”

If South Africa was a police state, I would ask for traffic officers to ticket and fine litterers. Singapore did it.

For years Singapore’s elite force of undercover cleanliness officers nabbed and fined litterers. The covert operation involved plain-clothes officers who caught people, local or visitors, in the act of tossing cigarette butts on the ground.

First-time offenders and those caught flinging small items such as sweet wrappers or cigarette butts were fined S$200 while recalcitrant litter throwers of large items such as soft drink cans were charged in court. Those formally charged may be fined up to S$1 000 and forced to spend time cleaning litter on the street.

Also, Singapore is known for its heavy fines against anyone who spits, urinates in elevators or doesn’t flush public toilets. The government only recently began allowing the limited sale of chewing gum after outlawing it for a dozen years.

Singapore did it. Why can’t we? If we do it, before long, as word got around about the crackdown, things would start to change.

A traffic officer once told me in a casual, off-the-record conversation that fining litterers seemed an overly harsh punishment.

My reaction: Are you joking? There are roadblocks to nail speedsters and unroadworthy vehicles. You can get ticketed if you don’t use your seat belt. Why not ticket people who toss garbage out of their cars, since the vast majority of us detest that behaviour and would applaud enforcement?

That would be just a start. I would also bring comprehensive programmes to the schools in which charismatic speakers would teach children about ownership and caretaking in their communities.

The other solution is to encourage the formation of neighbourhood cleaning organisations to involve the residents in this clean-up process.

Littering on streets and fields is commonplace. So is jettisoning garbage missiles out of car windows. This is unacceptable. Our cities are simply not our garbage can.

And here is how Joburg residents can play a major role in attaining a cleaner city: by not allowing themselves or tolerating others to litter our streets.

Families can teach. Grandparents and parents can emphasise to their children, and vice versa if need be, the use of trash bins, litter bags and even car ashtrays.

Also, constant reminders produce habitual behaviour. Streets signs can be highly effective in helping curtail littering. Stores should provide trash barrels.

Residents deserve no less. Besides the scheduled pick-up of garbage and recyclables, people need to know that street sweepers, grass-cutting, sewer-cleaning and tree-trimming equipment are not extinct.

Doing your part to keep litter to a minimum is easy, but it takes vigilance.

For starters, never let trash escape from your car and make sure household garbage bins are sealed tightly.

As a pedestrian, don’t litter. Always remember to take your garbage with you when leaving a park or other public space.

And if you’re still smoking, isn’t saving the environment a compelling enough reason to finally quit?

Also, if that stretch of roadway you drive every day to work is a haven for litter, offer to clean it up and keep it clean.

I believe everybody should be responsible for keeping the area directly in front of their property clean.

Of course the pavements are public property, but people who own buildings should have a vested interest in keeping their portion of the city clean.

Prove you are proud of your city and keep it clean. Let us play a role in making sure messy pavements and overflowing refuse bags do not create an irreparable stain on our character.

We should have pride in our cities, towns, neighbourhoods and suburbs.

A clean city, town and suburb will go a long way to making us all feel good about where we live, in spite of some of the other problems we face, and add to our quality of life. It will also demonstrate that we have pride in our country and communities.

* Amanda Nair is managing director of Pikitup, the City of Joburg’s waste management entity

The Star