Being naughty with wood

We have a wood burning stove. I’m not afraid or ashamed to tell you that. I love our wood burning stove and sometimes even worship it on cold Cape Town evenings. So colour me both wholly unhorrified and completely unsurprised to learn that wood burning is – environmentally – a Bad Thing to do.

I think we all knew this already.

I am a little irritated with the way that I was told about this, though.
The Observer led with this headline:

Which might well be accurate, but when I read the article, the only bit in there that actually eluded to that being the case was this one:

Sensors were placed throughout Ashley ward, which encompasses deprived parts of St Pauls and better-off Bristol neighbourhoods such as Montpelier. Oluwatosin Shittu, 40, who lives in St Pauls, found his sensor picked up more pollution during the weekend when some residents were burning wood and during rush hours when cars queued on local roads.

“At the weekend [pollution] was high because obviously up the hill [in Montpelier] people were burning wood,” he said.

The word “obviously” is doing an awful lot of hard work there.
Does Bristol only get cold at the weekends, then? Citation required.

To be fair, I last went to Bristol in 2010, on a Saturday, and it was absolutely feckin’ freezing, so there is some evidence for that, but it’s still a bit of a stretch to a) claim that those are the only days when it’s cold, and b) assume that any air pollution on those days comes from affluent people burning wood in their wood burning stoves. However, one must remember that this is the lefty Observer, the spiritual Sunday read of the Champagne Socialists, so the posh people have to be blamed for everything, somehow.

But is it really an issue?

Steve Crawshaw, who manages the project for the council, said domestic wood burning was a serious and growing problem. He added that the number of days exceeding WHO pollution guidelines in the ward were broadly in line with the city average, but still a cause of concern.

So the alleged wood burning stove pollution on the weekends in Ashley Ward makes it very much the same as everywhere else in the city where more or less affluent people do or don’t have wood burning stoves some or all of the time, then?


I’m not saying that any pollution is a good thing, of course, but when you read the stats in that very article, it does seem like a bit of a storm in a teacup. Because if you look at the bad bits about the PM 2.5 pollution that wood burners chuck out, they look quite bad:

The latest analysis from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveals that wood burners and open fires are now responsible for 17% of the country’s total PM 2.5 pollution – more than the pollution caused by road traffic. Nationally, emissions from domestic wood burning increased by 35% between 2010 and 2020.

But if you manage to get to the next paragraph, it’s actually all ok:

A Defra spokesperson said PM 2.5 pollution had fallen by 18% since 2010.

So it really just seems like a cheap shot at some middle-class people to me.

Back to Cape Town. Which we can’t really compare with Bristol because they’re entirely different places (like Sweden and Bulgaria). No-one here has central heating. It’s just not a thing. So yes, while my family are relatively well off and burning wood, those living in shacks in the local townships are also burning wood. A Cape Town cold front (such as the one outside right now which has already dumped 32mm of rain on us in the last 24 hours) is no fun for anyone beneath it, and burning wood to keep warm turns out to actually be a great leveller in our society.

But how would we keep warm if we didn’t burn wood?

Paraffin and LPG prices are prohibitively expensive as a way to heat your home – whatever size or type it may be (and they’re about to get even more expensive):

Electricity – if you have it – is every bit as pricey, it’s generated by filthy coal…

…and it’s regularly unavailable anyway as loadshedding often kicks in.

There’s no piped gas. No double glazing. Very few carpets.
We don’t need them for 10 months of the year.

So where’s any alternative, let alone an eco-friendly one?

There are only so many jumper and blankets you can put on.

On our positive side, most of the wood that we burn comes from invasive trees, so we are doing our bit to preserve the local natural environment, even as we chuck out toxins and particulates into that same natural environment.

Look, despite the rumours, there’s little chance of any legislation around wood burning coming soon to South Africa. That would deny many millions of people any sort of warmth or comfort. And even if it did, there would be one very obvious issue why it just wouldn’t work. Because if you’re going to ban the burning of wood, you’re clearly going to also have to ban braai’ing. That would be the final final nail in the ANC’s coffin.

So that’s just not going to happen.

Thus, with many apologies to the local PM 2.5 count and to the cursed residents of St Pauls in Bristol, I’m about to go and chuck some more Bluegum on the fire: it’s chilly and needs must.

(Beach fisher)men are trash

Much like cyclists, it’s the 98% of beach fishermen that give the other 2% a bad name. The beaches of Cape Agulhas are hugely popular with beach fishermen because of the rich variety of fish to be found there. Consequently, the beaches of Cape Agulhas are also hugely littered with the detritus from this pastime, because of the rich variety of beach fishermen to be found there.

I recently posted this photograph of the literally miles of fishing line that we picked up on a quick walk along the beach in Suiderstrand.

And the fact is that we could have gone back and done it again the following day. Or walked the other way along the beach and collected the same amount again. The waste from casual beach fishermen is ubiquitous, and by far the biggest polluter of our local shores.

But it doesn’t end there. Fishing is a communal activity, and that sort of communal activity in South Africa demands some sort of liquid accompaniment. Thus beer cans and brandy bottles are also left all over the rocks, clearly it being far too much effort to pop them back into the bag you brought them in and drop them into the bin back at the parking lot before you illegally weave your way home.

But it doesn’t end there, either. Because a day out on the beach with plenty of brandy can really get the metabolism going, and so the local dunes are littered with piles of human excrement and bog roll. Never have the services of the local puff adder population been more in demand. One bite on the balls of a crouching miscreant would surely see a massive and immediate drop in this disgusting behaviour.

I recognise that I’m not painting a particularly pretty picture of the area, which is sad, because it is a particularly pretty area. I’m just tired of it being ruined by dirty, lazy, uncaring fishermen, especially when the facilities which mean that all of this sort of behaviour is completely unnecessary, are right there next to where they parked their cars.

And, as ever, SANParks and the local law enforcement are impotent and invisible. Try flying your drone in the National Park though (no, I haven’t) and they’d be all over you like an aggressive lichen.

Right. I’m done. I’ll be clearing up some more fishing line off the beach this weekend, and I’m going to keep this soapbox safely here in case I need to get back on it at some time in the near future.

Which will inevitably happen.

The Great KZN Nurdle Disaster

Great title, long post, entirely written by someone else and for which I make no apologies for sharing in full here because (amazingly) not everyone has access to Facebook.

Back story: On 10th October 2017, Durban was hit by a cut-off low, bringing deadly winds, rain and flooding to the city and surroundings. During that storm, a container ship – the MSC Ines – drifted, blocking access in and out of Durban harbour:

And that’s where this story begins:

“Early last week, reports started to roll in that 100’s of millions of little round, half-moon shaped plastic “pellets” had begun washing up on beaches around Durban.
Within days it was evident that this was only the very tip of the iceberg and that the province’s marine life was under threat from Amanzimtoti and Umkomaas, right through to Richards Bay.
Towards the end of last week, SAAMBR (South African Association for Marine Biological Research) sent out an urgent appeal for all beach-goers to try and assist in collecting as many of these nurdles as possible over the weekend.
This call was echoed by numerous other organisations involved with marine conservation and beach clean-up projects.

According to SAAMBR, the pellets will very easily make their way into the food chain of many marine species, who could easily mistake the tiny pellets for eggs or similar food.

But that wasn’t the worst news. According to SAAMBR, the real danger is that these nurdles, which are a raw plastic material which gets re-melted and moulded in factories to make plastic products, can and do absorb pollutants like PCBs and organochlorine pesticides, which are highly toxic to marine life and humans if consumed.

Fundamentally, we have an enormous ecological disaster on our hands, which could easily be compared to an oil spill in terms of its possible impact on our marine species, not to mention the effects this could have on humans who may be consuming toxic fish a little further on down the road.

Most if not all the news articles on the issue so far have hinted or suggested that the nurdle spill occurred when a container fell from a ship during the extreme weather experienced along the KZN coast on the 10th of October, but nobody has yet been able to pinpoint the origin of these toxic nurdles, and stranger yet, nobody seems to have come forward to claim responsibility, even though it has now come to light that this spill will have a hugely detrimental impact on the marine environment, the full effects of which won’t be seen for some time.

Until this point, it has fallen to volunteers and willing beach users to try and collect these toxic pellets, and nobody from government or any toxic spill management company has bothered to do anything.

Salt Fishing South Africa, we believe, may have some insight as to the origin of these nurdles, and we have a whole host of questions we would like answered by the Durban Port Authority, the Durban Municipality, local government and the shipping company involved. And possibly, we would like a response from the insurance company of the shipping company and even of the company responsible for importing these products.

We have come into possession of a series of photographs that seem to very firmly suggest the origin of these pellets, and that had the situation been properly managed, the destructive effects of this spill, could have been significantly minimised.

Everyone will surely remember the dramatic image of the MSC Ines that, on the day of the storm, ran aground across the harbour mouth, and was completely blocking the port entrance.
Well, we have learned that when the port’s tugboats finally managed to drag the ship free, it’s run of bad luck was far from over. In fact, as the tugs towed it towards its mooring, it once again broke free, due to strong wind, and was pushed into another ship, the Maersk Vallvick, that was already moored at D mooring on the point terminal. This caused some serious damage to the Vallvick which was crushed between the heavy container ship and the quayside.

It was at this point that the environmental catastrophe began. As the MSC Ines crashed into the Maersk Vallvick, the Vallvick’s accommodation area tore open and damaged a number of containers on the Ines, sending at least one severely ruptured container (container number TGHU 923667-4), overboard and into the harbour waters.

From what we have learned, it was only at around 12 midday the following day that the port authorities realised that there was a damaged container in the water and only hours later was it removed by crane. In other words, at least one ruptured container, leaking these plastic nurdles, was in the harbour for almost 24 hours.

Today, almost 2 weeks after the storm, the remains of the damaged container and its cargo are still standing on the pier and the nearby railway tracks are littered with the plastic nurdles, still being blown into the ocean to further contaminate our shoreline.

And now our questions –

Why, when the damaged container was discovered in the harbour, why wasn’t a full-scale clean-up organised by the authorities, while the pollution was still contained in the harbour?

Why, when it was obvious that tons of these plastic pellets were being blown out to see for days, was nothing done at that stage?
These pellets don’t sink, as can be seen from the photos, and millions of them were blown up against the quays, where it would have been fairly simple to scoop them out.

Why, since the incident has made national news, has there still been no statement from the Port Authority about what happened and how they intend to deal with the consequences.

Why has nothing come from the owners of the MSC Ines? Surely the owners are aware of what these containers were loaded with and would know the sort of environmental damage this sort of spill would mean?
And surely they would have had to make a full report to their insurance company?

Why have we heard nothing from the Durban municipality on their plan to clean the city’s beaches? (Are we once again left with the same situation that happens every single summer when the Umgeni River floods and brings hundreds of tons of plastic rubbish and pollution into the river, from where it washes up onto the cities beaches and is often left for days, even weeks before being picked up, more-often-than-not, by public volunteers.)

Why, when it has become very evident that these tons and tons of plastic pellets have made their way up as far as Mtunzini and Richards Bay, covering almost 200 km of coastline, has Provincial Government not said anything. The province was declared a disaster area days after the storm. Why has Provincial Government not included some strategy to minimise the impact of this spill, in their disaster recovery plans.

WHY has it thus far fallen to the public to try and remedy the situation? There is absolutely no way that a few volunteers, no matter how passionate about keeping our beaches clean, can ever have any significant impact on a problem this massive.

Just to give you an idea, these nurdles come packed in 25 kg bags, (something to bear in mind when looking at them in the photos, floating in the harbour water, where they look deceptively small,) and the damaged container recovered from the water was a 6 m container, it could easily have had over 800 bags or about 20 tons worth inside.

This is an environmental emergency. In most other developed nations, this would receive emergency attention and swift support from government. Two weeks after the spill the public are the only ones expected to tackle a herculean task. Somebody needs to be held accountable and someone in our government needs to take this situation on urgently and come up with a strategy to do as much as possible at this late stage to minimise the impact of this spill.

And even though it may be too late to do very much this time, a serious lesson needs to be learned from this, and steps and measures put in place to ensure that if something like this occurs again, it gets top priority from the harbour authorities and isn’t ignored until some concerned member of the public has the courage to do or say something about it. This is not the public’s fault and it shouldn’t be left to us to sort it out!

Both damaged ships are still in the port, with the Maersk Vallvick currently in dry dock, presumably undergoing repairs.

The final photograph shows 2 pallets of the 25 kg bags of nurdles, seemingly all that was recovered by the clean-up crew.”

Not good.

Pigeons v Pollution

Here’s more news from London, where things are warming up, and where pollution levels will surely rise in the heady heat of those halcyon summer days. But, how best to monitor this phenomenon? Dogs with briefcases? Rats with duffel bags? No – it’s pigeons with backpacks.


Pigeons wearing backpacks with air quality sensors are now flying around London.

Half a dozen racing pigeons have been released into the capital with GPS devices and a 35g sensor to measure levels of nitrogen dioxide being produced in the city. The pigeons took off from their Brick Lane base on Monday.

I’m unsure as to the benefits of the pigeon-based system rather than the more traditional ground-based sensors, but hey – pigeons with backpacks!

The birds are then, using the power of the internet, tweeting those who ask for a reading.

Coo! It works – I tried it:

Fullscreen capture 2016-03-15 125441 PM.bmp

The pigeon people suggest that close opn 10,000 people die each year as a result of air pollution in London. Ironically, they refer to Asthma UK as “their friends”, although pigeons aren’t exactly the best pets to keep if you have pulmonary problems.

Still, just six backpack-wearing birds spread across ‘The Big Smoke’ can’t make you cough too much, right?