On World Cleanup day, 15 September, Lion’s Head saw a strong turnout of eager cleaners tackle its flanks. This was the 3rd Love Our Trails cleanup on the mountain supported by K-way in 2018. Families, couples, friends, SANParks and of course our trusty Friends of Lions Head and Signal Hill ladies came to the party.

Although the trails are regularly cleaned, Lions Head suffers daily abuse from its 200 000+ visitors a year. Hikers leave behind bottles, cigarette butts, food packaging and the likes. Over the course of the day, our volunteers filled several bin bags, graciously provided by Tuffys, who have been supporting our cleanups for the last three years with free gloves & bags. Aside from picking up the regular dose of hiker-trash however, this particular cleanup took on a more sinister turn of events.

A dirty secret on the hillside
A particularly adventurous couple went off the beaten track and made a shocking discovery. As most of the group had gone up the mountain, they decided to check the circle path for any trash. Having spent a while marveling at the cleanliness of the trail, they were beginning to think it had been a waste of time.

With eagle eyes tuned into finding anything alien, one of them spotted a piece of plastic a few meters off the track up the hill. They climbed the steep incline to pick up what they thought was some trash that had been blown by the wind. However, once up the rock, they were met with a rather spectacular site: what looked like an abandoned squatter camp site was littered with trash as far as the eye could see.

“At first we thought it was just a small area, then we looked a bit further and there was more and more trash everywhere we turned. It was never-ending!” says Douw, who discovered the site.
Kelly, his partner added: “Judging by the state of decomposition of the clothing and plastics, the site has stayed undiscovered for a very long time. I picked up a plastic milk bottle and it just dissolved into tiny pieces in my hand.”

So what does happen to plastic as it decomposes?
As plastics have only been around for roughly 50 years, scientists can only guess what will happen throughout the centuries. This is why you’ll see varying estimates of timings. Some will say a bottle or a straw will take 500 years, others prefer a more conservative 1000-year lifespan. There are also many outside factors that come into play. For example, plastic exposed to the elements react differently to plastics buried in a landfill. According to scientists, when exposed to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, polyethylene’s polymer chains become brittle and start to crack. This suggests that plastics will eventually fragment into microscopic granules. These fragments could end up polluting our water and food chain. (source: “Waste Management: A Reference Handbook” by Jacqueline Vaughn)

Teamwork, Clean work
After rallying the troops they returned to the site with a larger group of volunteers & SANParks employees and started methodically filling bags. Within a half hour they had filled four trash bags to the brim and barely made a dent. It seemed like this mammoth task was not going to be a one-day affair.

“We realized it was going to have to be a serious and methodical undertaking to get the area pristine again” says Blake Dyason, founder of Love Our Trails  “We will be working closely with SANParks to cleanup this trash den, while working on a plan to prevent this happening again.”

Keeping it clean
As hiking is becoming increasingly popular with locals & tourists alike, the degradation of trails, as well as mugging incidents have steadily increased. SANParks, in close partnership with Love Our Trails is working tirelessly on strategies for trail maintenance, safety on our trails, education for trail users and ways to keep our trails clean. Some drastic measures might have to be taken in order to ensure future generations will be able to enjoy our blessed nature reserves freely. Watch this space…

Today, the site is once again clean and nature has been blooming. Where once was a pile of old clothes, shopping bags and beer bottles, now sports a much happier tree surrounded by foliage.

Written by  Kelly Rose Ferris, Love our trails blogger and friend.