South African Waste Management in Crisis

By Glenn Ashton · 10 May 2008

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Picture: Jnthnhy
Picture: Jnthnhy

Although South Africa has adequate environmental legislation governing how we deal with our waste, cities and towns across the nation face a crisis. I recently visited the picturesque town of Swellendam and was brought face to face with the consequences of this mismanagement.

At mid morning on a glorious autumn day the entire town was smothered by a toxic swathe of smoke emanating from the town dump. The smell of burned plastic and all sorts of noxious by-products were not only visible but palpably foul smelling. Reports were rife from locals experiencing respiratory distress.

In order to deal with the ‘problem’ of waste disposal the local municipality had intentionally set fire to its landfill. The entrance to the landfill had a notice stating ‘no fires.’ Despite this, workers with a digger loader were moving around waste in a scene reminiscent of the apocalypse. There was no evidence of protective clothing or breathing apparatus despite the fact that these workers sometimes disappeared from sight in the smoke. Occasional explosions banged out across the dump. White, grey and black smoke flowed across the land, through the township and directly into the town below.

This sort of management practice is clearly not only dangerous but it is blatantly illegal. Under the constitution citizens are guaranteed an environment that is not damaging to their health. Under the National Environmental Management Bill best practice methodology is set out. Under the Hazardous Substances Act toxic materials must be properly disposed of. The Municipal Structures and Municipal Systems Acts set out frameworks for waste management. The Occupational Health and Safety Act forbids workers to work under hazardous conditions. What was happening on the 8th April 2008 in Swellendam, inexcusable as it was, is but one example amongst dozens of others, of just how dysfunctional our waste management really is.

While some industry insiders insist that some aspects of our waste management is world class, this is a red herring. What is this nation, beset by serious unemployment and health crises, really doing to address the problem of properly managing its waste in an integrated and holistic manner? Very little it seems.

In 1997 I wrote and circulated an informational document to 3000 decision makers in the Western Cape entitled, "An examination of waste management in the Western Cape and some proposed solutions to the crisis." More than a decade later little has changed. We face the same issues and challenges and just how we deal with our waste seems to be something that politicians, both national and local, appear disinterested in solving.

That document set out how producer responsibility should be phased in for waste generation by companies. It explained how we should encourage recycling in order to boost employment and halt the destruction of valuable resources by diverting them from landfills and dumps. It illustrated how the principles of reduce, reuse, recycle were just the start of a journey that must be urgently initiated.

Yet a decade later relatively large municipalities continue to burn landfills, poison their ratepayers, communities and water sources. Instead of managing the problem, larger problems are created through inaction, lack of management as well as an abysmal grasp of the fundamental principles of integrated waste management.

Clearly the intentions behind the long stalled national Waste Management Bill are a long way from even entering the ken of most small municipalities. What is rather more shocking is that large municipalities have often been equally lax in implementing meaningful management structures and practices. Instead business as usual continues, beside a few innovative programmes such as extraction of methane in Durban by the Ethekweni municipality and other similar programmes in other centres.

But why on earth have these sorts of projects not been replicated? There is no reason that any small municipality cannot put a proper waste management programme in place and both create employment and profit from the venture. Sealing and capping landfills to extract gas for power in remote locations is an obvious potential source of local power production. Using biomass, either from pelletised organic material or from garden waste, is another potential source of local energy production.

Any vehicles that deliver goods to rural areas, no matter how small, have to leave again. If they leave empty why do they not have a facility to accept recyclable items from earlier loads? Cool drink bottles, cans and plastic bottles are all recyclable. There are several initiatives from the plastic industry to recover its waste stream, the benefits increasing as the oil price rises. Manufacturers such as bottlers, packagers and distributors must take responsibility to accept and manage the waste associated with their products.

It is far easier to centralise collection of resource streams than to leave it up to local or regional government organs. Complete producer responsibility for the life cycle of products must be enforced. Even placing small deposits on containers would go a long way to make these things pay.

The infamous plastic bag recycling regulations have failed to even recover one bag, three years after that programme kicked off. Millions of Rands sit in government coffers, a large proportion of which has gone to set up offices that have yet to deliver any benefits to either employment or productivity. This is inexcusable.

The reduction of waste at source remains a distant dream. Re-use and recycling of any significant proportion of waste has been blocked in some cities despite interventions by private groups and interests who see the potentials to profit from proper management of this important resource stream.

Clearly we can wait no longer. The state needs to move urgently to put proper structures in place so that we can kill two birds with one stone – manage to reduce our waste and increase employment opportunities, using both state organs and enabling the private sector to gain the maximum benefit from the huge potential of this business. Given the present high costs of oil, coupled to the fact that a large proportion of our waste such as plastics are oil based, there is significant value to be gained from extracting plastics from the waste stream. Glass, paper, cardboard, tin cans, steel, rags, are also all recyclable.

Similarly a significant proportion of municipal waste consists of organic materials which have multiple uses. Redirecting this waste toward compost and natural fertilisers both reduces the environmental impacts and the direct cost of imported petrochemical sourced fertilisers.

Instead of conserving scarce and precious resources, we simply contaminate them by mixing them together and relegating them to dumps. This lack of planning can no longer be permitted, let alone condoned.

The choices are stark. We either realise the real value of the resource stream by diversion from waste or we can continue to chuck everything away and damn the consequences. We need to make urgent decisions at local, regional and national levels to stop this rot. Involvement of the private sector – and here we cannot only consider waste management specialist companies, but the people who live in these towns, the ratepayers and stakeholders in their own future whose money is wasted and whose health is impacted.

We clearly need to radically change how we deal with this urgent problem.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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15 May

Transformation of Waste

The problem is international and out of hand. Look at how the heavy metal industries are poisoning the Vaal River et al. Look at Potchefstrooms drinking water (but don't drink it!!) And read the article in the Independent( about how the pacific ocean is rapidly turning to plastic soup. Having never been a pessimist in my life, I'm now considering shooting my grandchildren (probably only cos they haven't been conceived yet)

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16 May

Waste Management in Crisis

Basically the enormity of the waste management problems both ours and world wide is not due to lack of waste management, management could not fix the problems anyway. Rather they are a natural consequence of the Western way of life which basically has an exploitative attitude towards the natural world. We have to move to a sustainable way of living which must of neccessity involve a basically cooperative attitude toward the natural world in all its variety and complexity. We will then see it as completely natural to strive for Zerro Waste in all our activities both individual and collective.

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