Observatory Liesbeek River T.R.A.S.H. clean up turns 10!

by | Nov 24, 2023 | Blog

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By Charmaine Smith


Anyone who’s started a volunteer initiative will tell you that the biggest challenge is to keep the project going in the long run. Asking people to dedicate their time for free – or donate money towards expenses – is a tough call in an era of busy schedules and economic hardship. But one initiative in Cape Town’s southern suburbs seems to have beaten this challenge. This year, the Observatory community’s monthly Liesbeek River clean-up in partnership with the non-profit Friends of the Liesbeek (FOL) is celebrating its tenth year.

It all started in 2013 with one volunteer, Observatory resident Ricardo Sa, who decided to do something about the rubbish pollution along the river.

“I had been walking my dogs on the banks of the Liesbeek and noticed how much rubbish had been accumulating over the years. I ran the idea of a monthly Obs community clean-up by FOL, the river’s custodian volunteer group, and got the blessing from the City of Cape Town.”

“I also got sponsorship from a company to supply protective clothing for five people, and water and some food from a local supermarket.”

Ricardo paid from his own pocket for the first clean, on 2 February 2013, for plastic bags and wages and transport for four workers from the Kader Asmal river-cleaning project. That day, this core team, Ricardo and five residents collected and sorted 16 bags of plastic litter; one bag of glass; 31 bags of different types of litter (metal, timber, cloth, paper, calculator, pots, mattresses, etc.); and three plastic crates.

“We took these all to a recycling depot. But only six of the bags of plastic litter could be recycled; the rest of the material had to go to general solid waste.”

He says the monthly clean-up started very well with the help of a local newspaper, ObsLife, to make residents aware of the community project. By April, 75 bags of rubbish were collected, a 50% increase from the two previous clean-up days.

Fast forward to 2023, and the T.R.A.S.H. (Taking Rubbish Away, Saving Habitat) project is still ticking over like clockwork on the first Saturday of each month, bar a few months that were missed during the COVID-19 lockdown. This has been largely thanks to the continuity provided by literally a handful of Observatory residents who took over organising the event from Ricardo when he relocated. Also key to the success of T.R.A.S.H. is the partnership with FOL, who were asked to make available their gear, such as waders and litter pickers, for volunteers’ use. A few members of the FOL maintenance team also join each month for a stipend to ensure coverage on both sides of the river between the N2 and the South African Astrological Observatory.

Kari Cousins, a member of FOL’s voluntary steering committee, says “it’s fantastic that residents have adopted this section of the river in this helpful way. We have always believed local communities are vital to the sustainable health of the river corridor.”

“We wish more groups along our river would create such projects!”

In the early years, the bags of trash were collected and taken to the solid waste depot by individual volunteers or representatives from The Wild Fig, Oude Molen Village, the Two Rivers Urban Park, and the Observatory Civic Association. This role has since been taken over by the City of Cape Town. Records of the T.R.A.S.H. clean-ups show that between 500 – 700 bags of litter were removed each year, amounting to around 6 500 bags over the last decade.

Other common items found were:

  • car tires (15+);
  • shopping trolleys;
  • abandoned crates,
  • buckets,
  • suitcases,
  • clothing,
  • blankets,
  • mattresses;
  • a television,
  • microwaves, and
  • an oil heater.

It’s tough work; hauling such items to a collection point, some of which had to be fished out of the water first (municipal bins and a blow-up swimming pool!). The expertise, experience, and stamina of the FoL maintenance team has been invaluable in getting the job done each month.

Kari says it can be disheartening, collecting litter that others so carelessly discard.

“But it’s important to keep doing it. We can only hope that this inspires others to see that taking care of our green spaces matters, and that it’s up to us to do what we can, every day, to make the world a more beautiful, less filthy place.”

Mark Kilfoil, a volunteer who shows up just about every month come rain or shine, explains why: “Each piece of plastic removed is one less bit of pollution in our oceans. Helping every month is a small contribution to caring for the environment and our neighbourhood.”

“My hope is that by being visibly active, other users of the riverbanks will be inspired to join in and help.”

One encouragement for the T.R.A.S.H. organisers is that large groups from corporates, schools and other volunteer projects have been attending the clean-ups, albeit not on an ongoing basis.

Ricardo, who now lives abroad, says it is amazing that the monthly initiative is still going strong:

“Since the beginning there has been countless help from Obs residents and support from local businesses to cover costs.”

“It’s great to know that the community still embraces and supports this little project. It is still relevant … the idea of bringing a community together in an organised way to look after and show everyone that we care about our neighbourhood. And there are active people still behind it with great energy.”

This is, in Kari’s words, “entirely due to the passion and tenacity of the volunteers to keep this monthly event going”.

Sybrand Strauss, who took over organising the clean-ups from Ricardo until mid-2017, points out that “it’s a wonderful example of a grassroots movement which grew into something larger.”

In his report to the Observatory community after the first clean-up, Ricardo wrote: “We have achieved a lot with little means.” Ten years later, that statement still bears testimony to what “ordinary” people can achieve when they join forces to be the change that they’d like to see in the world.

How you can get involved:

  • Support the T.R.A.S.H annual fundraiser by buying a ticket to stand a chance to win one of several giveaway hampers sponsored by local businesses.
  • Join the team on the first Saturday of each month.
  • Consider making an ongoing or once-off donation to Friends of the Liesbeek.

Charmaine Smith is one of the current organisers of T.R.A.S.H. together with Kari Cousins, Werner Steyn, and Trish Swanepoel.

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