State-supplied condoms are washing up on Durban’s beaches by the hundreds. They’re the tip of a much bigger problem.
When Cyril Ramaphosa, as deputy president, punted the government’s free “Max” condoms to Parliament on 1 September 2016, he might have hoped the prophylactics would at least end up on his parliamentary members’ members. And perhaps some did. After all, they came in exciting new scents of grape and apple. But thousands of these condoms are not fulfilling their purpose.
|A pile of washed up trash including unopened condoms|
After torrential rains in KwaZulu-Natal on 22 March, the waters of the Umgeni River rose dramatically. As the soupy brown water roared towards the river mouth, it picked up a horrific assortment of waste. Cool- drink bottles, shoes, roll-on deodorant containers, crumbling polystyrene, broken buckets and toys, medicine bottles and – you guessed it – the state-issued free and fruity scented Max condoms, thousands of them still in their sealed wrappers.
On Freedom Day, 700 Durbanites gathered at the Umgeni River mouth to retrieve the mountain of trash before it washed out to sea. One of them was teacher Vee Mottram, who expressed disbelief at the heaps of plastic, condoms and polystyrene littering the shoreline. “I despair really because the problem is so big and so deep and so wide,” Mottram said.
Another, 16-year-old Jordan Joubert, picked up 72 condoms from Beachwood Beach, not far from the river mouth. The vast majority of these were Max and Choice (Max’s unscented predecessor in the government’s free public sector condom programme).
Unfortunately, finding condoms washed up on beaches is not unusual. “Both male and female condoms wash up every single time there is a major storm. I personally pick up about 50 condoms in one clean-up. It is a huge – and puzzling – problem,” said Dale Johnson, founder of the Clean Blue Lagoon (CBL) movement.
CBL’s Denise McCreadie suggested that the condoms perhaps did not meet people’s expectations and were thrown out in vast numbers with the trash. “Well-known brands like Durex hardly ever wash up unopened. Maybe the Durex ones are always used because they are ribbed for your pleasure,” mused McCreadie.
Thomas Hart, a research and communication consultant at Green Archeol Consulting (which specialises in community development in informal markets), found it suspicious that the condoms were washing up in their wrappers, en masse.
“The condoms could either be from a faulty production run at the factory which was illegally dumped by a waste contractor,” Hart said, referring to the R150-million condom factory built by HBM-SA at the Dube TradePort.
Hart continued: “Or they’re being distributed to informal settlements as a health drive and the distributor is quietly dumping half his load on the banks of the Umgeni or its tributaries.”
Informal settlements are targeted for illegal dumping because they generally do not have the resources, infrastructure and services to manage their waste. “The waste builds up around these settlements and waste contractors and construction companies take advantage of this to dump there without prosecution,” Hart said.
Riverside settlements in Umlazi, Cato Manor, Kwadabeka, Quarry Road, New Germany, Pinetown, Newlands West and East, KwaMashu and Phoenix are likely sources of the waste that ends up on the beaches.
“Tributaries to the Umgeni and the harbour, such as Umlazi, Sea Cow, Umhlatuzana, Palmiet and the Umbilo rivers go through several informal settlements too. Over 20 illegal dumpsites were found on the banks of the Palmiet in a 3km stretch,” Hart said.
Litter for Tokens’ project director Lindsay Hopkins said some informal communities were passionate about keeping their environments clean but were frustrated by illegal dumping on their doorstep.
“Waste contractors hired by Durban Solid Waste and the municipality to collect waste from informal settlements have been seen dumping on the banks of rivers and in open fields outside informal settlements – because it’s cheaper and easier than paying to transport and dump it at operational landfill sites,” Hopkins said.
Hanno Langenhoven, Wildlands strategic manager for recycling, estimated that 50 tonnes of waste washed up on beaches from Amanzimtoti to Durban after the April storm – and condoms were consistently a visible presence in amongst the waste.
“Most of the waste collected from beach clean-ups ends up at Wildlands’ Cato Manor recycling depot for sorting. Plastic makes up 90% of all pollution on beaches. An estimated 40% cannot be recycled and ends up in landfill. (Condoms, which are latex, cannot be recycled.) The other 60% is sent to the relevant recycling industry,” Langenhoven told Noseweek.
PET bottles, Coca-Cola in particular, are the biggest waste contributor. “PET Coke bottles make up 60-70% of the volume of all waste from beach clean-ups; followed by other PET bottles like Coo-ee (20%). Polystyrene is the second-largest problem by volume but the bigger environmental problem. It breaks down into millions of tiny pieces that can be ingested. The third-biggest problem is products from companies like Unilever: roll-on deodorant and containers for ice-cream, margarine and washing powder etc.”
|Clean-up teams wade through plastic debris at the mouth of the Umgeni River|
By volume, small items like condoms are a minor problem – but they’re evidence of a monumental cock-up.
The National Department of Health has made a huge investment in making condoms freely available to the public. In 2017/2018, it distributed 694-million Max condoms at a cost of R312m; 839-million Max condoms in 2015/16, and 734-million Choice condoms in 2014/15, according to the health department’s Deputy Director General Dr Yogan Pillay.
While these are mostly imported, a sizeable portion is now being manufactured at a R150m condom factory built by HBM-SA at the Dube TradePort. The production capacity of this factory is 453 million pieces per annum, and it won a government national tender to produce 15 million condoms for 2019. These are distributed by the health department and service providers to health facilities, universities and colleges, workplaces and non-traditional outlets such as spaza shops, hair salons, taverns and shebeens.
Given that Choice condoms are still washing up even though they are no longer in production, is a puzzling feature of the beach litter.
Society for Family Health marketing specialist Ndinatsei Mumbengegwi said the Department of Health had made a great investment in the free public sector condom programme to ensure that all South Africans have access to condoms.
“The Society for Family Health historically distributed 45 to 50 million condoms-a-year. In 2018, we distributed 489,000 condoms in KZN and 90% of these were in uMgungundlovu,” said Mumbengegwi, adding that the society ceased distributing condoms after 30 September 2018, when it lost funding for distribution.
“However, the condom programme continues to grow. Young people and the general population seem to be enjoying the Max condoms. Condom usage is important as it is the only dual protection method against pregnancy and HIV,” Mumbengegwi said.
Dr Pillay of the health department had no prior knowledge of condoms washing down the river. But he, too, took the opportunity to emphasise the importance of condom use. “Condoms are a cornerstone for the prevention of HIV, STIs and unplanned pregnancies. Correct and consistent use of condoms will avert all the above and most importantly save lives.”
But when a fistful of bad choices combine – from poor choice of packaging material to irresponsible waste disposal – condoms as plastic waste can make the difference between life and death for marine and land creatures too. They’re just on the wrong side of the equation.
“What your generation needs to remember is that you’re just borrowing the earth from my generation,” said schoolboy Joubert. “What kind of a mess are we going to inherit from you?”
Copyright © 2019 www.noseweek.co.za