Not far from where she does new moon beach cleanups in Muizenberg, Aaniyah Omardien spent her happiest times as a child. “On hot days, my mother would pack a picnic supper and we’d go to Dalebrook tidal pool in Kalk Bay to have long swims in the sea.”

Aaniyah has other, less happy, memories of being chased away from Froggy Pond near Simonstown. But despite this beach and many others being reserved for white people, the environmental scientist says she and her two younger sisters grew up loving the sea.

I asked scientists with whom I have worked where I could be most useful

Aaniyah’s non-profit, The Beach Co-op, grew from volunteering. “I wanted to give back to the ocean, the thing that has given me so much joy. I asked scientists with whom I have worked where I could be most useful, what projects were out there, and how I could contribute.”

After she completed her first degree in environmental sciences, Aaniyah spent 10 years working for the World Wildlife Fund which gave her exposure and experience in conservation, and it’s where she met funders and key scientists. She completed her masters degree in marine management while working at WWF.

When she approached him, Peter Ryan, a marine scientist, suggested Aaniyah work on the rocky area of Surfers’ Corner in Muizenberg. One of Peter’s academic interests is plastic pollution in marine systems. He had until then focused on sandy beaches and wanted to know if plastic pollution on rocky shores was different to that found on sandy beaches.

“Aaniyah asked me how her group of longboarders could help,” says Peter. “Sandy beach cleanups are done to death, so I suggested the intertidal rocky shore where the municipality doesn’t clean.” Working with Aaniyah gives Peter’s research organization the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town the opportunity to effect change by providing information, monitoring the cleanups and working with citizens.  Since they started the project in March 2015, interest in the new moon cleanups – when it is spring low tide –  has grown, with local businesses providing free coffee, and more and more citizens participating.

Our mission is to reduce and eliminate single-use plastic

“We do the work because we love the ocean, and want to work with others who do too,” says Aaniyah. “Our mission is to reduce and eliminate single-use plastic. For us this means cleaning the beaches, and working with brands and companies who want to reduce single-use plastic. But the work we do starts and ends up by looking at the beach.”

The Beach Co-op sends the found debris to Peter’s lab to be sorted, weighed and logged as part of a study, which has generated interesting contrasts to what is found on sandy beaches. There are the usual packets, shopping bags and lots of fishing line. But in the rocky areas, plastic bags become filled with sand. These ‘brick bags’ have to be dug out carefully to ensure they don’t tear, leaving plastic behind. Plastic that sinks, like plastic cutlery and polystyrene, is found in abundance along the rocky shore, while plastic that floats is more likely to be found on the beaches.

We want people to think about their behaviour

Other The Beach Co-op events are the Dirty Dozen cleanups of sandy beaches, which are fun citizen science events using a methodology developed by Peter. The Dirty Dozen are the top 12 plastic culprits found on beaches. “We get citizens to think about how much they consume and how they can reduce what they consume,” she says. “You could find 770 sweetie wrappers on the beach. This makes you think about where the sweetie wrapper is going once you’ve consumed it. We want people to think about their behaviour.”

Peter has been documenting beach pollution for 20 years on 80 national beaches. Aaniyah says, “He does a rigorous study of each of those beaches every 5 years. And through doing this science experiment, has found the top most commonly found items.”

Peter decided not to put cigarette butts on the Dirty Dozen list. He felt people would get bored of them. But, says Aaniyah, “we must know that they are very common and if included would skew the study’s data. At our Dirty Dozen cleanups we most commonly find water bottles, cooldrink bottles, bottle top lids, straws and sweet wrappers… besides cigarette butts like I said”.

Aaniyah has followed a childhood love of the sea to build an organisation with a role to play in growing awareness about the need to eliminate single-use plastic.

The Beach Co-op’s next event is tomorrow at the Logjam, a beach festival at Surfers’ Corner in Muizenberg.

Where: Surfers’ Corner, Muizenberg

What: Besides the beach cleanup, a longboarding contest, surf market, yoga, surf therapy, art exhibition

Cost: Daytime is free, afterparty is R90

Photo Credit: Portraits of Aaniyah with surfboard are by Saskia Koerner; others supplied.