By: Lana Mazahreh, Project Leader at The Boston Consulting Group
My reflections on how tackling the water crisis in Cape Town meant a massive increase in plastic consumption
When I came to Cape Town three months ago, the first thing I did was buy a bucket. Having worked in the water conservation space, I know how important it is to reuse grey water. I had buckets placed strategically all around the house: in the shower, the bathtub, the sink. It’s not strange in Cape Town; it’s a way of life.
With drastically low dam levels, the city has been fearfully monitoring “Day Zero,” the moment they run completely dry. The community was in a constant scramble to push this day out. And the efforts have been inspiring. Signs throughout Cape Town playfully declare “Ah Bucket,” encouraging conservation. Restaurants and homes stock up on plastic cups and cutlery to save water on washing dishes. Some bars stopped serving water at all: alcoholic beverages only.
But nothing is ever easy. Between plastic buckets and the dishware, plastic consumption has skyrocketed. I quickly began to notice, with dread, that our means of tackling the water crisis were creating a new problem altogether.
Water conservation efforts in Cape Town have led to massive amounts of plastic consumption. People started using disposable cutlery, cups, and plates to avoid washing dishes, and purchasing plastic water bottles instead of drinking tap water (which has unfortunately declined in quality) or investing in installing water filters.
According to Africa Geographic, South Africa ranks 11th in world for the quantity of plastic they release into the sea. Not an honorable title. The same source tells us that “56% of plastic waste ends up littering the environment in South Africa, compared to 11% in Brazil or 2% in the US.” Have we aggravated the plastic problem by tempering the water problem?
Why Does This Matter?
It’s no secret that plastic takes a heavy toll on the environment. According to Environmental Health News, the chemicals in plastics poison marine animals and leach into groundwater. The plastic refuse itself transports invasive species safely to new habitats. And plastic creation uses a great deal of fossil fuels—accounting for 8% of global oil production.
More than 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, and the three largest clean-up initiatives are barely tackling 5% of that. Additionally, more than 50% of plastic packaging will never be recycled or reused.
What Can We Do?
I have grappled a lot with this problem. How do we solve one crisis without creating another? I may not have the answer to this massive question, but I have started my journey by taking a few simple actions:
 Carry a reusable mug / bottle. This is a habit I have gotten into, and I use it for everything from drinking water on an airplane to ordering takeout coffee.
 Bring my own bag. When I purchase new items, I opt out of the plastic bag and put them in my tote bag or backpack instead.
 Skip the straw! I tell waiters in advance that I won’t be needing a straw, and I don’t pick one up with my smoothie. I can’t take credit for this idea; a whole social media campaign is dedicated to it. There is even a day for this: National Skip the Straw Day, the fourth Friday in February.
As National Geographic points out, the straw itself is not the point, so much as keeping a continued awareness of the unnecessary waste we create: “Of the eight million tonnes of plastic trash that flow every year into the world’s oceans, the plastic drinking straw is surely not a top contributor to all that tonnage. Yet this small, slender tube, utterly unnecessary for most beverage consumption, is at the center of a growing environmental campaign aimed at convincing people to stop using straws to help save the oceans.”
Shall we make every day National Skip the Straw Day?
Lana also recorded a short video for Earth day with the BCG Social Impact team. In the video she reflects on how tackling the water crisis in Cape Town meant a massive increase in plastic consumption. Click on the link below to watch the video