SA drowning in its own waste - are our regulators taking this crisis seriously?

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SOUTH Africans dispose of enough municipal solid waste to fill an entire football field 10 metres deep, every day. Every single person of our total population of 57 million generates up to 2,5kg of waste per day, on average, depending on his or her level of income. The disposal of such waste at properly licensed and regulatory compliant sanitary landfills is generally accepted as being a safe and economical option throughout the world.

South Africans generate roughly 54,2 million tons of general (municipal, commercial, and industrial) waste per year. Of this 54,2 million of tons of waste, a maximum of only 10% is recycled or recovered for other uses, whilst at least 90% is landfilled or dumped.

These statistics (2017) are among some of the more concerning insights reported in the latest and second draft of the State of Waste Report (SoWR) 1, issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). The report further highlights that approximately 94% of the 48 million tons of hazardous waste generated in 2017 was also directed to landfill sites. Hazardous waste types include mercury containing, asbestos containing, brine, fly ash, waste oils, sewage sludge and materials considered as miscellaneous waste. These hazardous wastes generate a wide range of toxins that are hazardous to the environment and human life, and need to be carefully treated according to strict hazardous waste regulations.

Metropolitan municipalities in Gauteng have not licenced a single new landfill facility for 24 years, and during this time we have lived under an illusion that we need to (and can feasibly) recover 70% of our municipal waste streams generated. The reality, on the other hand, is that our few remaining landfill sites are filling up and approaching closure at a rapid and increasing rate, and we are not replacing them with new landfills or implementing viable alternative waste disposal or recovery solutions. Sanitary landfilling is a generally accepted method of waste disposal throughout the world as being an economical and safe option, in the absence of economically viable alternatives. As the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA), we have also witnessed a serious decline in the standard of landfill operation and management throughout South Africa, particularly at municipal level, which in turn creates a domino effect and contributes to the dwindling capacity and eventual closure of these facilities. 

During the most recent biennial WasteCon2018 conference (hosted at Emperors Palace in October 2018), the theme of “Implementing the Waste Hierarchy” was extensively discussed and debated, with international experts and guest speakers sharing their experiences and best practice with South African environmental practitioners, but the reality is that South Africa is in a WASTE CRISIS that requires immediate attention and action.

Apart from the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality and the City of Ekurhuleni, most (if not all) other major cities and local municipalities across South Africa have no legal airspace left, are in serious trouble, and are generally operating in ‘crisis mode’. Not only do the majority of South African municipalities not comply with their regulatory obligations in terms of the operation of their landfills, but also with the gazetted Norms and Standards for the development of such facilities.

Generally, it will take any municipality at least five years to obtain a waste licence, and an additional 12 months for the construction of a new landfill facility, without any public opposition to such a facility, which the City of Cape Town and various other municipalities have learned over the past 20 years and are still learning.

In an ideal world, various waste streams should be seen as a ‘resource’ – however, there needs to be a viable commercial need for the resource or commodity. It can be said that South Africa is at least 15 years behind Europe in implementing the required resource recovery systems, which would create economically viable businesses and employment.

Various municipal and hazardous waste streams have significant calorific value and could be utilised in the generation of renewable energy, alleviating pressure on conventional power generation facilities, while at the same time providing part of a solution to the landfill crisis in South Africa. In reality, however, it will take any private or public entity at least 10 years to licence and construct a large scale Waste to Energy facility in South Africa.

For years, South Africans have been fighting the poaching of rhinos and supporting various other honourable and worthwhile causes, but for at least 15 years there has been a “waste tsunami” on the horizon, threatening our growing population whilst we turn a blind eye towards this major risk. A real concern is that we won’t even be able to pay for the problem to go away, as we simply do not have enough licenced landfills or waste treatment facilities to accommodate the ever growing “wave of waste”.

The IWMSA has been highlighting these issues for years, and pleading with the regulatory authorities to take this crisis seriously. It is clear that simply releasing more legislation as a response to the crisis will not yield satisfactory results.

Should Government act decisively on the waste crisis now, we will most likely only have a workable, sustainable solution in place within the next ten years. From a waste perspective, South Africa is in self-destruct mode, and if recent history is to be extrapolated, we will be leaving nothing behind but significant air and water pollution for generations to come.

It is time that the pleas of the IWMSA and qualified, experienced waste management practitioners be heard, and it is our challenge to the regulatory authorities to no longer ignore the stark reality and take hands with the IWMSA, develop a disaster management team, and act immediately.

The first step to recovery is recognition and admission of the problem at hand. We, as a society, need to admit that we have become complacent with the state of waste management and disposal in our country. Consumers and industry are all contributors to the current state of the public and private sector waste management industry. Our waste management industry as it stands is simply not able to keep up with the high and increasing volumes of waste generated as our population grows. We seriously need to look at adding to our current waste management infrastructure which will ultimately help us manage our country's waste in a sustainable way.