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Environmental responsibilities

Why is the environment important to us?

ConstitutionSouth Africa's Constitution (http://www.polity.org.za) is the first in the world to include environmental rights. Briefly, the Constitution states that:

"Everyone has the right -

  • to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and
  • to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that - prevent pollution and ecological degradation, promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development."

The Constitution as a judgement tool to protect individuals, groups and the environment from harmful activitiesThis means that if other legal processes such as the National Environmental Management Act (http://www.polity.org.za) cannot be successfully used to protect an individual or group from a particular activity which is harmful to their environment, and subsequently to their health, the Constitution can be used to bring the case to court.

However, together with rights, come responsibilities. Many people think that environmental problems are for other people or the government to do something about. But, as this NSOE has shown, environmental issues impact on the quality of life of each and every one of us, as well as all future generations. Caring for the earthEnvironmental responsibility starts with each and every one of us as individuals, and is first and foremost a state of mind, an attitude and commitment to take responsibility, followed by appropriate behaviours. Many people also question ‘What difference can anything I do make?" The answer to this is critical: it is the combined impact of everyone's activities which will make a difference, just as democracy only works if enough people take the time and effort to cast their individual votes, which added up, lead to what the majority desire! This combined impact of individual actions is the basis for the environmental slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally". If everyone takes care of their immediate surroundings and minimises their own individual resource use, then together these actions will make a difference. This section spells out activities which can be undertaken by individuals to contribute to sustainability, by taking ownership of improving their own, their children's and their community's daily quality of life, now and in the future.

Empowering Individuals and Communities:  Top of Page

A local newspaper as a means to make environmental information accessible to allEnabling individuals and communities to act and to care for their own environment requires empowerment through provision of environmental information and access to the appropriate channels for voicing their concerns and bringing about change. Information must be available in ways which take into account the different levels of literacy and access in South African society - it must be accessible to all, and individuals and communities should demand such access. South African's right to freedom of information has been enshrined in the Constitution (http://www.polity.org.za) and current moves to promulgate a Freedom of Information Act (http://www.polity.org.za) should be strongly supported by all. This principle aligns with one of the main themes of the RDP (http://www.polity.org.za) which stresses empowerment of people through consultation, participation and capacity-building. Southern Africa Environment ProjectThis empowerment will enable people to take ownership of their own local environments, allowing local decisions based on equity and security of access to resources such as land and water. The Southern African Environmental Project (http://www.saep.org) strives to provide a gateway to information across the whole spectrum of southern African sustainable development and environmental issues, from governmental activities such as policy and legislation down to community and individual actions.

Such empowerment of communities in managing their local environments is the cornerstone of Local Agenda 21. This is a strategy designed for the local level, but based on the principles of Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development emerging from the Rio Earth Summit (1992). The DEA&T is mandated with rolling out Local Agenda 21 in South Africa (http://www.polity.org.za/govdocs/pr/1997/pr0623c.html).

Individual Activities: Top of Page

Commitment to sustainability means the taking of hands and the sharing of common goalsThe first activity individuals should undertake is to examine their own commitment to sustainability. This includes attempting to understand what the impacts of resource use are, how ecosystems work, and what the knock-on effects are of the activities in our daily lives, such as water use, vehicle use and work, recreation and entertainment activities. We should not see sustainability as something extra we have to do in already busy and sometimes difficult lives - when questioned on their values, most people will say they are trying to create something better for their children, whether it be just in the home, or in education, or in work opportunities. This is precisely what the principles of sustainability strive to achieve - the only difference is that sustainability attempts to show how combined efforts towards common sustainability goals will produce far greater benefits for individuals and their children than individuals striving on their own to do so. Commitment to sustainability means a sharing of common goals and a vision for improved quality of life, rather than the selfishness of the "tragedy of the commons" whereby individuals all try and exploit resources as fast as possible, before someone else does, until resources are fully consumed, and everyone suffers. This is encapsulated in the sustainability slogan, "some for all, forever", rather than the selfish "all for some, for now"!

Minimising Resource Use: Top of Page

Conscious awareness of use of resources during day-to-day activities such as using water sparingly at all times and NEVER leaving a tap running (visit the Greater Hermanus Water Conservation Programme for detail on how to minimise water use http://hermanus.co.za/info/water.htm); turning off lights, heaters and other energy-using devices when not needed, Use water and other resources sparinglyand questioning the need to turn them on when doing so; planning trips so that vehicle and transport use is minimised, use of bicycles or walking where possible (details of energy saving tips ref, etc). An excellent example of how to minimise resource use in the home is given on the WWF site http://www.virtualhouse.org

Recycling: Top of Page

RecycleSeparate out all household glass, tin, paper and plastic materials and use recycling facilities where available (this can also be a source of income).Where facilities are not available locally, request your local authority or even community organisations such as churches, where people gather on a regular basis anyway, to have them installed. Enquire about such facilities at your workplace and insist on their being provided. The following organisations can also be contacted for further information:

Logo of the Collect-a-Can OrganizationCollect-a-Can (Pty) Ltd.
Head Office, PO Box 43304, Industria, 2042.
Tel. 011-4742507


Aluminium Can Recycling Association
Email: acra@iafrica.com
Address P O Box 14976 WADEVILLE 1422
Telephone 011 824-4258

Recycling Metal

NUMSA - Health and Safety in the wider community

Liquid Waste Pollution Top of Page :

NEVER discard liquid wastes such as motor oils, paints or poisons down drains or in water courses, or bury or burn it. Never throw liquid waste in waterSeal these in secure containers, and drop them off at local collection points - inquire at the point of sale about these. For all types if lubricating oils, the Rose Foundation (www.rosefoundation.org.za or toll-free umber: 0800 107 107) is a multi-institutional manufacturers initiative to recycle and re-use oils, with advice, collection points and containers for consumers, and who will pay for the return of used lubricating oils. Request your place of work to provide such facilities.

Littering: Top of Page

Always place rubbish in a litter binNEVER discard a piece of litter of any sort. Place in a rubbish bin or take home or to work with you wherever possible for proper disposal. Whenever the opportunity arises, try and pick up one piece of litter everyday - cumulatively this helps, and demonstrates the right attitudes to others.

Community Organisations: Top of Page

Children participating in an environmental projectJoin a local community-based organisation, either one which conducts environmental activities such as the WWF (http://www.worldwildlife.org), Earthlife Africa (http://www.earthlife.org.za) or encourage the one you join to take up such activities in the community interest. Encourage local schools and the children to participate in such activities - often with immediate direct benefits such as income to the school from recycled materials, or greening of school grounds by planting of trees (Trees for Africa details).

Composting: Top of Page

Rather than buying compost for your garden, particularly small vegetable gardens for your own consumption, start a small compost heap with all the discardable vegetable matter from your home and garden, and even from your workplace where this is possible.

Consumer Goods: Top of Page

Try and be selective when shopping and buy environmentally friendly goods such as those in reusable or returnable containers wherever possible, and encourage your local outlets to provide such goods and the facilities for returning/recycling. Take a shopping bag with you so that you don't need all those plastic shopping bags to carry your goods home.

Health: Top of Page

Health education at a clinicEfforts on the part of local and national authorities to provide services which promote and improve human health, such as housing, energy, access to clean water, disease eradication and immunisation programmes, and waste removal and sanitation, should be fully supported by all. However, active participation by individuals and community organisations in educating others, particularly children, on the individual actions required for example, in looking after individual health, proper sanitation and waste disposal procedures, and avoidance of disease, is the responsibility of all.

Marine, Coastal and Estuarine Environments: Top of Page

Prohibit sign at a vulnerable coastal areaThese systems are particularly vulnerable to human activities due to the large amounts of activities as well as the types of activities which take place, and users have a particular responsibility to protect the resources they benefit from. Worldwide it is estimated that over two million seabirds and 100 000 marine mammals die each year from drowning or strangulation after becoming entangled in litter such as fishing line, netting and ropes, as well as species like turtles dieing from ingesting plastics. NEVER discard fishing equipment such as fishing line, hooks, lead sinkers or nets, other than in rubbish bins, preferably far from the beach. Pick up any such items you may come across - they also pose a hazard to humans! Vehicle use on beaches causes severe damage to vulnerable dune areas and all of the animals which depend on the shore zone - if it can be avoided, do not drive on beaches, dunes, or estuaries, or if necessary, try and stay between the high and low water marks, and do not drive over any vegetation or debris on the beach - these are scarce food and habitat for many species.

Rocky shores and reefs, and their inhabitants are also highly vulnerable, and every care should be taken not to touch, remove or damage in any way the structures and biota. Where valid permits allow collection, the quotas should be strictly adhered to, and every care taken not to damage surroundings. Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to damage, and worldwide are heavily threatened by uncaring, irresponsible and destructive human activities (see http://www.motherjones.com/coral_reef/).

Organisational Initiatives: Top of Page

Implimentation of ISO 14000 in industries and companiesIndustries and companies should be encouraged to implement ISO 14000, the international environmental management system for business which includes certified compliance with minimum standards for such things as health and safety of workers, resource use and waste minimisation and re-use, and reporting on these activities in annual reports ( for more info on ISO standards see http://www.iso.ch). Traditionally, industry has focussed on ‘end-of-pipe' waste management ie what to do with wastes once they have been created. The global move to cleaner production focusses on avoiding generation of waste products in the first place. This strategy usually cuts costs of production, reduces raw material use, lowers risks and identifies new market opportunities. (See the information on Cleaner Production on the UNEP website: http://unepie.org/hp_pc.html) A good example of industry-wide initiatives are given by by the Chemical and Allied Industries Association (http://www.mbendi.co.za/caia/rescare.htm) and by individual companies, by Eskom (http://www.eskom.co.za/environment.html), and by PPC (http://www.ppc.co.za/corporate/environment.htm),

Further Information: Top of Page

Useful Publications:
  • Caring for the Earth - South Africa. A guide to sustainable living. Yeld J. ISBN 0-9583812-9-1. Published by WWF-SA, available from Juta Academic Publishers, PO Box 14373, Kenwyn 7790; Tel 021-7975101; Fax: 021-797-0121.
  • Blueprint for a Green Planet: How you can take practical action today to fight pollution. J.Seymour and H. Girardet. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. London 1987.
  • 1001 Ways to Save the Planet: B. Vallely. Penguin 1990.
  • Food Security: Agricultural Policy and Hunger. S. Zipperer. Zimfep. Zimbabwe. 1987.
  • The Outdoor Classroom: F.W.J.Opie. Maskew Miller Longman. Cape Town. 1989.
  • The Food Gardens Foundation: Craighall, Johannesburg.
  • The Green Umbrella: J. Brand, W. Blows and C. Short. World Wide Fund for Nature. A & C Black. London.1991.
  • The Biology and Conservation of South Africa's Vanishing Waters: B.R.Davies and J.A.Day. University of Cape Town. 1986.
  • Environmental and Agricultural Science - Living in our world: A. Darwin, J. House and N. Mackay. The College Press. Zimbabwe.
  • Healthy Soil - Happy Life: E. Van Schalkwyk. Human Sciences Research Council and Land Service Movement. 1992.
  • Help to save the world - Programme resource material on conservation: C. Lindsten. World organisation of the Scout Movement and World Wide Fund for Nature. World Scout Bureau. Geneva. 1990.
  • Soil Erosion - why should we be concerned about it? M.C. Laker. In: ENVIROTEACH No 2 1993. pp. 3 - 6.
  • South African Environments into the 21st Century: B. Huntley, R. Siegfried, C. Sunter. Human and Rousseau. Tafelberg. 1989.
  • The Earthscan Action Handbook for People and Planet: M. Litvinoff. Earthscan Publications. London. 1990.
  • The Peoples Workbook: ENVIRONMENTAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCY. Newtown.
Useful Contacts: Top of Page

Local Agenda 21: Wilma Desmore, T:012 3103693; Fax:012 3226287;

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Last updated: October 1999