by Andrew Hallet

Waste management: a conversation we all need to have

When it comes to waste management in South Africa, the reality is that we are lagging far behind the rest of the world

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While your average man on the street will tell you that what happens to their waste is not of their concern and is the government's responsibility, the truth is that the onus should, first and foremost, fall at the door of the citizens.

Yes, the government is required to put systems in place to ensure proper waste management and recycling protocols are available to the citizens of the country, but if said citizens have no interest or an ignorance towards what is required of them, then the battle is lost, to begin with. It is far easier for a person to just throw all their rubbish into one bin or, in some cases, into the open, than it is to separate it the right way and allow for those government employees who deal with the waste to properly dispose of each individual piece of trash. Recycling really isn't a difficult concept but when the buck stops with the man on the street, the motivation to change habits and move towards a more environmentally-friendly way of thinking is akin to trying to put a fire out with a match.

The government, on the whole, has been trying to curb the issues, which come with the poor waste management of the country. One of the more recent initiatives has come to light in Johannesburg. From 1 July 2018, residents of Johannesburg will be required to separate their rubbish into recyclables and non-recyclables. Those who do not adhere to the new requirements will face heavy fines from the City of Johannesburg. Again, while this is a step in the right direction on government's part, are the people going to respond positively and actually do what is asked of them?

According to the MMC for Environmental Affairs, Nico De Jager, there is a positive vibe surrounding this new law being put into place in Johannesburg, and he recently told Eye Witness News: “The response from our residents has been very positive. There’s definitely an appetite, right now, because, suddenly, our residents realise our oceans are being polluted by what we’re doing in Johannesburg.”

However, the outlook for those who live in townships is not quite on the same page as everyone in Johannesburg. The poor service delivery that they receive on the whole results in scattered rubbish, health concerns and dangerous environments for the children. The less attention that is paid to those living in squalor, the greater we fall behind in the waste management stakes. For every good idea that arises, we seem, as a country, to fall behind the rest by not always addressing the issues we already have, and rather trying to prevent the ones we foresee our children's children facing in the future. The solution here is to look at every situation as equally important, but that is not always the case. The present and the future are one and the same—they are not mutually exclusive.

You just need to look at the overflowing landfills in the country to understand the need for change—from everyone. No one person is going to change the outlook of how we deal with waste in South Africa but as a collective, there is a chance we can better our own lives as well as those around us. A change in mentality is required but that is easier said than done.

It is easy to point fingers but if we are serious about cleaning up our cities, towns, and places we call home, there are lessons that we all need to learn. As much as we don't always like to admit it, a lot of foreign countries have far more to shout about than we do when it comes to how we live our lives and that, too, comes down to things like waste management. If we are prepared to learn from those doing things the right way, then we can flourish as a country.

The European nation of Sweden is just one example that we should look to for solutions to our issues and needs. According to their government, 99% of household waste in the country is recycled in some way or another. One of the best ways in which they turn everyday waste into something tangible is burning it to create energy, instead of using coal. Incineration plants have been built to allow for the burning of waste. The energy created is used to power the country, while the waste created from this process is purified and used to fill up abandoned mines. They even offer to take the waste from other countries to keep energy production going, so their solution is not just beneficial to them, but their neighbours too. This is the kind of forward thinking that creates a positive attitude towards the idea of recycling and proves that the more one is willing to assist, the greater society profits.

While some are still not sure about the environmental impact burning waste has on the planet, the pros are outweighing the cons, especially where using landfills is the alternative. Weine Wiqvist, the Director of Avfall Sverige, Sweden’s waste-to-energy association, told Energy News: “When combining the resource issue along with the climate issue, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that landfilling is very bad for the environment and for the society, because you get nothing out of it—except problems."

In addition to Sweden’s fine work, according to research conducted by Eunomia, an independent consultancy dedicated to helping clients achieve better environmental outcomes, Germany is the number one country in the world when it comes to recycling, with a rating of over 65%. That rating is made up of every sector within the country, not just households. Every house has different bins for recycling, companies are expected to use the same system, while fines are issued for those who do not comply. This shows that a concerted effort has been made by Germany as a collective to ensure that their footprint is far less harsh than the rest of us and that is an example we need to follow. Singapore and Wales took the second and third spot, respectively. It can work, and these countries are leading the way.

While those various countries are examples of how to do things properly, their methods do not come without a price. Government funding is required to ensure everything runs smoothly and fines are issued to those who do not comply—but is that sustainable in a country like South Africa where government funds are already stretched thin and often misused, and the majority of its citizens are too poor to pay fines for something as unimportant to them as recycling?

That is where a company such as Polyco stands out from the rest. According to their website, “The Polyolefin Responsibility Organisation NPC, trading as Polyco, is a not-for-profit industry body that was established in 2011 to focus on reducing the amount of polyolefin waste going to landfill by increasing the sustainable collection, recycling, recovery and beneficiation of polyolefin plastics. Our mission is to support the creation of a society where litter is minimised and the value of waste is maximised, through facilitating the responsible management of used polyolefin plastic packaging material.”

What essentially happens is that ordinary people are given incentives to collect as much waste as they possibly can, mainly in township areas. Polyco then recycles said waste to ensure a cleaner, healthier South Africa. This gets people involved and interested in the environment around them and allows for those who are without work to be able to use their time wisely, and for a good cause. A cleaner, healthier environment then helps with issues of illness arising from poor living conditions, so their work really is positive for all who are involved.

One way in which Polyco has spread their message is by targetting the youth of the country through social media. We all know—and have been told over and over again—that the youth of our country are so vital to its future, so Polyco played on that to spread the message of recycling and its importance to that generation. At the time of the campaign, Polyco’s Chief Executive Officer, Mandy Naudé, said: “Our videos were very well-received when we launched them on YouTube, Facebook and on our website. They explain why we need to recycle, how to recycle and what products are made from recycled plastics. We recognised the need to make the videos available to as wide an audience as possible with the use of subtitles, as these videos need to be accessible to every individual in order for our combined efforts to create the significant change needed."

She added: “One of the biggest threats to South Africa’s recycling industry is the lack of a consistent stream of clean, recyclable materials. The Industry Waste Management Plan has set a recycling rate target of 35% by 2020. According to the latest plastic recycling figures, we are currently achieving 30.8%. This means that we have to grow polyolefin recycling in South Africa by more than 300 000 tonnes over the next four years. Polyco is up for the challenge but we know that the only way we are going to meet this target is through building a strong value chain in which every player recognises the important role and responsibility they have to play."

This is what we need to see more of in South Africa—a clear message to the youth of this country that will hopefully be filtered through to all generations. The more the message is spread, the more the issues we encounter with regards to waste management and recycling can be removed from our landscape.

Ecobricks are another way in which we, as South Africans, can get involved in the fight for a cleaner, safer country. Essentially, an ecobrick is a plastic bottle stuffed solid with non-biological waste. These ecobricks are then used to build houses, schools, and essential infrastructure, instead of your normal building bricks. This solves many problems, as the waste does not end up in landfills or in the ocean and provides the materials required for the building of much-need infrastructure. The idea first came to light in Guatemala in 2004. Susana Heisse, a German environmental activist and the founder of Pura Vida, an environmental organisation, came up with the idea in order to build schools in South America, while also ensuring that the impact on the environment was lessened. This act of creating ecobricks has started to catch on in South Africa, with various organisations jumping on board to increase the scale of production and allow for people to get involved. Again, working together is the number one route we need to take.

Woolworths is another example of the private sector working to ensure a better tomorrow with the banning of plastic straws, plastic carrier bags and earbuds in their stores. Similarly to Woolworths' stance, the United Kingdom has a plan in place for the use of plastic in its countries. Their goal is, according to official UK government communication, to have “100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025”. Regulations such as these are what governments need to do, but they have to be enforced and monitored, not just promised. Little changes like these go a long way and, ultimately, make a massive difference across the board.

Single-use plastic is a massive problem and is destroying ocean habitats as you read this. It is a scary situation, and one that needs to change. The European Union is currently putting measures in place to remove as much single-use plastic as possible from its countries, but the reality is that those who work with plastic need to step up to the plate. Federal Association of the German Waste Management Industry (BDE) President, Peter Kurth, said: "Those who produce plastic goods are responsible for ensuring they can be recycled." The more conscious decisions are made by the people of this world, the more we will benefit from a planet not suffocated to death by our own doing.

While the South African government is working towards a better waste management system, looking at what is being done overseas and privately in the country is vital for success, going forward. Until such a time as sustainable techniques and procedures are put in place, and the people of the country buy into them, South Africa will continue to struggle on the world stage when it comes to waste management and recycling. It is achievable, given what the private sector and some local governments have introduced to the country, but only time will tell whether South Africa will ever be able to reach the lofty heights of its foreign counterparts—and make a true difference in this environmental fight. Here's hoping it happens, but a lot more work is required across the board—and it starts with you.

This battle is winnable but only if we are all ready to pitch in, work together and learn from the rest of the world. Recycling no longer needs to be just a word in the dictionary but rather, a way of life, a change in habit and, thus, a better life for those in South Africa. 

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