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Toxic islands in the stream

There’s a heap of rubbish caught in a bend of the Hennops River that’s over 100m long, writes Saturday Star 18 January 2020


Canadian academic, science broadcaster and environmental activist

Heap of rubbish over 100 metres long caught in a bend of the Hennops River
Willem Snyman, an anti-waste activist and founder of Fresh.NGO, stands on the giant mound of polystyrene discarded in the Hennops River.

A MUMMIFIED assortment of sun-hardened plastic and chunks of polystyrene crunch under Willem Snyman’s boots as he steps carefully onto Poly Island.

Hidden from view on the scenic lower reaches of the polluted Hennops River in Eldoraigne, an array of plastic, broken polystyrene and wedges of foam form a solid island of floating trash in the river.

“It’s safe to walk out here. I’ve done it many times,” invites Snyman, the founder of, a non-profit body that aims to clean up the country’s rivers, dams and waterways, with a steady grin. “I’m literally walking on water.”

One of three huge plastic and styrofoam islands on the blighted Hennops, which is infested with sewage and rubbish, Poly Island is the biggest.

At over 100m long, it’s packed tightly with waste, bulging just opposite the Zwartkops nature reserve.

“A friend fell in and said it’s just solid polystyrene as deep as your waist, so it’s probably a good few metres of trash ... It just happens to be here in one spot. Normally, it would just be spread out everywhere.

“It’s become a bizarre little ecosystem,” remarks Snyman, as he watches spiders scurrying across packets of unused condoms.

But Poly Island serves as a natural litter trap where most of the virtually indestructible styrofoam and plastic from upstream accumulates.

“We’re grateful that it’s here though I’m not sure what’s keeping all this waste here. The danger is it could break up in a big flood, spreading hundreds of tons of plastic downriver.

“It’s days are numbered - it’s a gigantic eco-disaster waiting to happen. The problem is that from here down on the river is all natural and this will all overwhelm it.”

Synman worries about the potential for microplastic pollution and endocrine disruptors seeping from the heaps of waste.

As the island is partially on the grounds of an SANDF garrison, the hope is to get the military involved in a joint operation to remove it along with another local NGO, Hennops Revival, soon. Its aim is to “heal the river one clean-up at a time”.

“Then, we can start scooping the waste out because the problem is that it’s sitting here and decaying and it does need to be removed quickly.”

Dismayed, Snyman points out what appears to be rocks scattered throughout a tree-fringed circle of land alongside the river. “That’s all styrofoam. This is such a beautiful place but it’s become a big rubbish dump.”

About 15km away, on West Avenue in Centurion, he shows one of several nets that he and a team of river clean-up volunteers crafted and erected last year to help stem the tide of waste.

“It’s all coming from upstream sources, from Tembisa, Kaalfontein and Ivory Park, where there’s a breakdown of rubbish removal. People are just chucking their waste into the river massive volumes.

“There’s an avalanche of development and no proper provision for waste. It’s a free for all.”

Last year teams of “river warriors” organised numerous Hennops river clean-ups but the deluge of waste, says Snyman, is relentless.

“The clean-ups do help to reduce the volume. From the nets we’ve taken about 300 volumetric tons, mostly stryofoam, in about a month, and probably around 100 tons in total over the years.”

He estimates that around 200 000 tons of plastic are dumped into the river every year, of which the volunteers retrieve only a fraction.

“The nets are efficient and low cost. But the best thing is we’re not waiting for the government, we just put it up ourselves. It’s a “miracle”, he says, that both the West Ave net and Poly Island survived the heavy flooding that hit Centurion in December.

“We’ll repair the net further and will meet with Tshwane and recycling companies to take away the mostly polystyrene from here.

“We would still like to repair the nets higher up as well. We have big plans and want to upscale efforts this year.

“We’ll be repairing the nets damaged in the floods, start recycling centres and try to empower local groups nearby to maintain them.

“With nets on all the tributaries, the avalanche of plastic can be stopped. We’d also like to minimise sewage leaks by employing local spotters who can search for and report overflowing sewage mains to eliminate this health hazard for the community.”

Last month, the City of Tshwane stated that work to rehabilitate the river would be intensified this year.

For Snyman and others devoted to the restoration of the Hennops and the fountain systems that sustain it, the goal is a Rivers of Origin corridor.

“Early this year a conference on the Rivers of Origin will be held to initiate plans for forming a conservation and heritage area stretching all along the river, uniting it as a biodiversity corridor to start the restoration of original life,” Snyman says.

The poor state of the Witwatersrand’s ancient, ailing rivers like the Hennops is a major reason for biodiversity loss, he believes.

“The Hennops is famous in Centurion and was pristine a few years ago. Many people still have memories of swimming in it, but now that it’s so polluted they’re forgetting about it.

“It’s almost like it’s the most degraded land and it used be the most valuable. Now it’s just ripe for development and further degradation. It’s really sad.

“It’s not so difficult to get stuff out of the river, it’s just a bit of laziness, really. If that’s the case for plastic, then it’s the same with sewage pollution.

“It takes a lot of energy to pollute it but if you just leave it the river will be crystal clear. Hopefully, someday people will realise what they’ve got there. At the moment it’s not worth anything to anyone.”

Safeguarding the Hennops is a “movement of the people”, Snyman adds.

“The government is a kind of custodian of our rivers but they’re not going to save them for us. We need to stand up and fight for our rivers. That’s the only way they will ever get cleaned up.

“If a river like the Hennops is used, it won’t be abused as much.”

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