We have introduced Econewbies in the previous Chapter under the topic, “Environmental Deterioration”. In this Chapter we will focus on the three main environments where deterioration takes place namely the air, water, and surface. Pollution happens largely because of human-induced factors.

Nature has an inherent capacity to recycle elements. For example, when a tree sheds its leaves, the leaves are not in the way – it serves as food for micro-organisms which eventually transform the decomposing leaves into necessary (inorganic) elements (for example calcium) in soil that are absorbed by the roots of the tree or other plants. In nature there is therefore no such thing as pollution.

Everything is recycled and therefore re-used.

Natural causes of air pollution are forest and veldt fires, dust storms, and volcanic eruptions. Although these could cause huge disruptions, the effects of pollution caused by humans on an ongoing basis, are far more severe. The main culprits are exhaust fumes from motor vehicles and the smoke from factories and power stations as well as methane released by livestock in the agricultural sector. Unwanted noise and too much artificial light at night could also be considered as forms of air pollution.

Figure 2.2: Air pollution is the accumulation of substances in the air in concentrations that endanger health and life.

Figure 2.1: In nature there is no such thing as pollution. Everything is recycled and therefore re-used.

Air pollution happens when particles or gaseous matter accumulate in the atmosphere at a pace faster than nature’s capacity to recycle it. 

Air pollution could therefore be described as the accumulation of substances in the air that will endanger the health of people, animals, and plants.

Air pollution also puts natural recycling systems, such as photosynthesis which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, under pressure. It further contributes to global warming as the accumulation of polluting gasses in the atmosphere results in a hothouse effect when carbon dioxide, methane gas, and other ‘greenhouse gasses’ form a type of covering around the earth’s atmosphere.

This prevents the heat that is normally radiated from the earth to escape into space. The trapped heat is causing more erratic weather like worsening droughts and extreme floods on a global scale.

Figure 2.4: Products such as aerosols contributes to the destruction of the ozone layer.

Figure 2.3: Greenhouse gasses prevent radiant heat from dissipating into space

Air pollution also occurs inside buildings when cigarette smoke endangers people’s health. In our homes the use of aerosol products is contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer.

This layer around the Earth is designed to protect us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, but holes in it, made by these harmful gasses, is preventing it from doing so effectively. Ultraviolet, or UV rays are known to cause skin cancer and it also has a very negative effect on plant life and crops.

Acid rain is formed when chemical reactions take place between greenhouse gasses and vapour in the air. These chemical reactions cause the formation of an acid that returns to the earth’s surface mixed with rain, snow, hail, or fog. Acid rain has a negative effect on the fertility of soil; it can kill trees and the eggs of amphibians, and it causes birds to lay soft unproductive eggs. Furthermore, it causes the corrosion of buildings, statutes, and fences.

Another negative result from the exhaust smoke of vehicles is that it releases lead particles into the air. These lead compounds in the air could directly be absorbed by the lungs of humans and animals or return to the soil. In the soil the lead compounds are absorbed by the roots of plants. Whether we eat these plants directly or eat the animals that feed on these plants, the lead compounds will be stored in our bodies. The danger of lead is that it builds up in the human body as the body is not able to dispose of heavy compounds. This accumulation affects the nervous system and could cause psychological disorders and even bone deformation in a baby’s foetal stage.

Figure 2.5: When greenhouse gasses mix with vapor in the atmosphere, it forms acid rain, hail, or snow. It kills vegetation.

Figure 2.6: Air pollution leads to global warming which in return impacts negatively on agriculture due to flooding and droughts in different parts of the globe.

Air pollution thus causes much more damage than simply the discomfort of bad smells. It threatens the health and survival of humans, animals, and plants. It could make the earth inhospitable to life. Unless we, the human component in the ecosystem, change our industrial practices and personal behaviour, our lives and the future of our children is in jeopardy.

Water pollution occurs when harmful chemicals are introduced to the sea, rivers and dams from farms, industries, and municipalities to such an extent that the processes of nature cannot re-circulate and purify it effectively.

Water is also polluted when physical materials such as plastic or garbage are introduced to fresh or ocean waters. As is the case with air pollution, water pollution is much more severe than it simply being an eye sore in otherwise beautiful landscapes or sea views. Polluted water is life-threatening to animals and vegetation living in and around it and to humans making use of it, resulting often in outbreaks of plagues like cholera and typhus fever. South Africa is a water-scarce country, and we need to take extra care to preserve this essential resource.

Before continuing the discussion on water pollution, we need to mention the concern of unintended consequences. In our well-intended endeavours and experiments to benefit humankind we have harnessed from nature without contemplating all repercussions. The building of a dam for instance offers us advantages such as water security and flood control but it negatively impacts on the ecosystems that once relied on a river. Pumping sewage into waterbodies or the sea may alleviate cities and towns from unwanted waste products, but it negatively impacts on aquatic life. 

Nuclear technology provides us with reliable base-load energy but also leaves us with dangerous waste products. ‘Shooting’ clouds to fall as rain may give temporary relief but may impact on the long-term natural hydrological cycle. By replacing fertile land with cities or clearing established forests habitats to plant monoculture crops are all having negative long-term impacts on our natural support systems.

All these examples are trigger factors that often sets in motion unintended outcomes. Like a stone thrown in a dam these trigger factors circle out affecting many interconnected systems.

Figure 2.7: Water is polluted when chemical, physical or biological material is introduced to it in large quantities.

Figure 2.8: When sewage and domestic waste is released into water courses it results in bad odours and plagues like typhus fever and cholera.

When too much harmful chemicals are introduced into to the sea, rivers and dams from farms, industries, and municipalities to such an extent that the processes of nature cannot re-circulate and purify it, decay will set in.

Early civilizations usually originated close to usable sources of water. By means of running water they could easily get rid of sewage and other forms of waste. But in reality, this kind of behaviour only causes adverse conditions and danger to people living in settlements further downstream. Presently in Southern Africa we are experiencing this problem in our cities where municipal sewage infrastructure fails. It is the responsibility of municipalities to see to it that before sewerage and domestic waste from our homes are released into rivers, it is done in a highly degradable form. To remain healthy, water ecosystems rely on a complex web of animal, plant, and micro-organism interactions but the pollution of water causes algae blooms which reduce the oxygen level in the water resulting in the death of aquatic life.

Figure2.9: When toxic waste enters the water cycle it can lead to the death of many forms of life.

One can sympathize with communities that do not have access to proper facilities or who are still not educated in terms of proper sewage disposal, but when it comes to agriculture, industry, and mining, such a careless attitude should not be tolerated.

Especially gold and coal mines are culprits, releasing large quantities of acid water into water bodies. As a result, toxic waste containing lead and mercury compounds enter the water cycle.

Figure2.10: Poor drainage on agricultural lands causes chemicals like pesticides to be flushed into water course – called eutrophication.

Surface pollution – also known as land pollution – is where the litter and waste material are dumped in public places such as streets, parks, picnic areas, at bus stops, taxi ranks, or near shops. Where waste accumulates it starts to decay and attract pests like rats and mice and the area quickly becomes unhealthy.

One of the main reasons for this type of pollution in and around our cities today is because of the fast pace at which products are manufactured and discarded.

Figure 2.11: Accumulated waste that decay attract pests that carry disease and threaten the health of people.

Figure 2.12: Recycling is vital for environmentally friendly living.

Not enough time is allowed for the huge amounts of material waste to be broken down sufficiently to be re-circulated back into the natural system. Our present-day lifestyle has been the main cause of this form of pollution and therefore a new way of life will be needed to address the problem. 

Concepts such as simplistic living need to be promoted. Practical actions such as reduce, re-use, and recycle, should become common practice. This is one of the easiest ways for individuals and communities to participate in creating a sustainable future.

There are three types of solid waste that can be recycled. The first is kitchen waste which takes from two to five months to decompose naturally. It offers a great opportunity to make compost that could be used in gardens or vegetable plots. The second form of solid waste is non-combustible waste. This is waste that cannot be set alight. It includes metal objects and building rubble which can take thousands of years to decay. Metal objects can be recycled, and this is a growing income generating opportunity. The third form of solid waste is combustible waste or waste that can be burned like plastic, fibreglass, and rubber. But if burned, it releases dangerous fumes into the air. If exposed to the rays of the sun, it takes from 10 to 30 years to be destroyed. And if it is buried, like most municipalities do, their lifetime is practically unlimited. If recycling is implemented as an alternative, the mass-production of these products could greatly be reduced and thus limit the need to extract ore deposits through mining which has a huge impact on the immediate environment.

Although the constitution says that we have a right to a clean and healthy environment, we live in a world where garbage is piling up. Unless we seriously adopt a circular economy that promotes the re-use of materials, we are burdening future generations. However, if recycling is properly implemented in a circular economy as an alternative to the present linear model where products are made, used, and then thrown away as waste, we will mimic nature’s regenerative qualities and by so doing become more sustainable.

The circular economy is a system where materials do not become waste and nature is regenerated. In a circular economy, products or materials are kept in circulation through processes like maintenance, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture, recycling, and composting. In this way the circular economy will in its very nature positively contribute to the local and global challenges of biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. But in order to succeed we will have to transform every element of our take-make-waste system: how we manage natural resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. Only then can we create a thriving circular economy that can benefit everyone within the limits of our planet. It holds the promise to transform our throwaway economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated. It will address climate change and biodiversity loss, while attending to important social needs by creating new jobs and avenues of growth that benefit people and the planet as a whole.

Figure 2.13: The best thing for us to do is to look after our own future interests by taking action TODAY.

Comment to activists: Remember, ringing alarm bells and complaining about wrong environmental practices means little unless we mobilize ourselves and become a change agent where we live and work. The future is in our hands.