pelican.jpg (333200 bytes)   A Bird's Eye View on Waste

Waste Management

Conference Programme

Resource Recovery in South Africa
by Ray Lombard
Chairman, National Recycling Forum
South Africa



Perhaps because our growing awareness of the world around us leads us to believe that most of the environmental damage experienced by our planet has occurred within the last millennium a marked acceleration in the last few decades. Air and water pollution, nuclear and hazardous waste disposal, global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, deforestation and desertification, soil erosion, resource over-exploitation and over-population are all associated with the advent of mankind’s domination over the environment.

The waste crisis is one symptom of man’s manipulation of the environment to an extent that is well beyond that required to fulfil his own needs and even those of his species. Our propensity to consume natural resources stems from our reproductive behaviour, our beliefs as well as our political and socio-economic systems. Our self-awareness, intelligence and creativity has equipped us to analyse what has happened in the past, what is happening in the present and what could happen in the future. Our beliefs focus on the spiritual and neglect the temporal - our environment. Our religious practices have contributed significantly towards the population explosion and must help to correct this problem by encouraging a limited growth rate. Existing political systems do not provide the answers to social and economic problems, let alone environmental ones!1

Developing countries, such as South Africa, have dynamic and complex environmental problems because of their unique political, social, environmental, economic and technical circumstances. Even within individual countries the challenges to waste management are so diverse that problems cannot be solved by merely scaling up or transplanting existing levels of services; even if these seem successful in their existing contexts. New strategies are required to handle the dynamics of rapid urbanisation.

The development of a waste management policy for South Africa must relate to the country's economy, i.e. its economic wealth in terms of resources, the quality of life enjoyed by its people and its potential for industrial growth. South Africa's growth is expected to take place in the urban areas and rapid urbanisation will place heavy demands on resources in particular the allocation of funds to services as menial as waste management. If the required economic growth rate is achieved industrial activity will grow to meet demand, standards of living will rise and more waste will have to be managed. The challenge for waste management in South Africa is to manage the situation with all its constraints and opportunities in such a way that the environment is not threatened unnecessarily.


The size of the solid waste stream in South Africa may be illustrated by the following estimates of the annual tonnages of wastes produced:

TABLE 1 - RSA Solid Waste Stream (000s tonnes per year).

Mining tailings (1990) 238 500
Pulverised fuel ash (1990) 22 200
Agricultural waste (1989) 20 000
Urban waste (1990) 15 000
Chemical waste (1990) 12 000
Sewage sludge (1993) 12 000
Metallurgical slag (1993) 5 400
Other wastes (1993) 4 800
Total 330 100

Urban wastes arise from domestic activities, commerce, secondary industry and post consumption behaviour, e.g. littering. This category includes sewage, domestic refuse, secondary industrial waste and packaging material. This waste is generally landfilled, a growing percentage is recycled and the balance is either littered or disposed of illegally. This is the waste category where the heaviest emphasis has been placed on waste reduction and elimination in the developed countries - the main target being packaging! Significantly the onus is invariably placed on industry and little responsibility is laid at the consumers' door, but the consumer always pays in the end!

Industrial wastes cover a wide spectrum of material including many chemical compounds. Some of the wastes arise from primary industry and are managed by those industries themselves. Wastes such as pulverised fuel ash, metallurgical slag and phosphogypsum are produced in quantity and stored in large open dumps. Waste from smaller industries is generally handled by local authorities or private contractors and these wastes will be found in the urban solid waste stream. Wastes from the food processing industry, e.g. meat processing, are rich in protein and are extensively recycled. Not all industrial wastes pose a potential threat to the environment and many waste materials have value depending on the cost of recovery and market value after extraction.

The hazardous component of the waste stream which contains a multitude of chemical compounds is a particular element of concern. In the 1992 CSIR Report on Hazardous Waste in South Africa it was estimated that almost 2 million tonnes were potentially hazardous3. These wastes are found in all industries including the manufacturing, chemical, petroleum, mining, nuclear, metallurgical and medical industries.

Even local authorities contribute as domestic waste contains hazardous components, e.g. used pesticide containers and their associated residues etc. Note that the valuable 1992 CSIR work has never been updated - another good book-end!


The developing urban areas in South Africa are characterised by informal settlements which are overcrowded with population densities ranging from 8 500 - 39 000 people per square km. The influx of people from the rural areas of South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa, has resulted in phenomenal urban growth rates of up to 9 % per annum. South Africa is an Eldorado to the other less affluent societies on the African continent. The scenario faced by the third tier of government is understood when the following examples are considered. Firstly, there are more than 28 established local authorities in Gauteng Province. There are also numerous informal developing areas.

The official population estimates for the formal local authorities exceeds 3,58 million while over 1,5 million people live informally in the same region. Secondly, in the Durban Metropolitan Area, 33 formal and informal settlements are recognised.

Population estimates indicate that the formal developing areas house approximately 0,65 million people while the informal areas may house as many as 1,7 million people. The experience of the other metropolitan areas is essentially the same.

Metropolitan authorities rate waste management services as relatively low priorities in the needs hierarchy for these areas, but the people themselves rate public health services, including waste management, as high priority needs. In the informal areas waste storage facilities, collection and waste disposal services including street sweeping are virtually non-existent.

The health risk and environmental degradation associated with this situation is entirely unacceptable. The Reconstruction and Development Programme and later, Masakhane, have been geared to foster a social and service renaissance climate in these developing areas. Yet, all of the formal urban areas have substantial backlogs in the provision of housing, social and public health services. The people will not pay for services that they do not receive!

The urban solid waste management problem is increasing because of population growth and the pressure that this places on the assimilative capacity of the environment. It has been predicted that 80 % of the population of South Africa will be urbanised by the turn of the century, which means that some 47 million people may be living in the major already densely populated areas by then. The process of urbanising rural people leads to aspirations for developed world affluent lifestyles and the associated consumption of goods, services and energy. Any improvement in the standard of living inevitably results in more waste.

In recognising this problem, some stakeholders preach that a waste free society will miraculously arise when the principles enshrined in "green" jargon become law. The principles, e.g. integrated waste management, waste minimisation, responsibility, accountability, affordability, sustainability, are subject to confusingly varied interpretation and due consideration of the economic implications and associated environmental consequences is never a serious concern.


The standard of waste disposal in South Africa has improved in the metropolitan areas but continues to be low in the smaller local authorities that do not have the benefit of metropolitan "big brother" support structures3. In these latter situations high level disposal standards are supposedly "unaffordable". However, the collective experience of developed countries suggests that the acceptance of very stringent waste disposal regulations is a necessity because the cost of poor disposal is frequently much higher than anticipated. Further, the poor standards that are supposedly affordable now merely postpone the cost that must inevitably be borne by the economy at some time in the future. The planning of future disposal sites in South Africa must receive a very much higher priority with all the stakeholders.

In accordance with the Minimum Requirements for Management of Waste as published by the Department of Water Affairs & Forestry, sites must be located in acceptable geological and soil formations, avoid vulnerable aquifers and surface water as well as minimise overall environmental impacts. Suitable disposal sites in the high density urban areas are already a problem and this situation must deteriorate further in future.

The Departments of Environmental Affairs & Tourism and Water Affairs & Forestry are co-operating in the further development and implementation of Integrated Waste Management and Pollution Control (IWM&PC) which seeks to bring together all the concerns associated with holistic waste management.

If South Africa succeeds, this will be a significant achievement in the international community, as no country, not even Germany, has succeeded in reducing legislative control in waste management to below the concern and responsibility of several departments.

Simultaneously the Consultative National Environmental Policy Process has led to the publishing of a Green Paper on the National Environmental Policy for South Africa where waste is also recognised as an important issue. We are, hopefully, getting somewhere at last!  


Clean technology, redesign, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle are all elements in the waste elimination arsenal. All have a role to play. The extraction of material from the waste stream and its utilisation in various ways is commonly termed "recycling". This is practised for many reasons including financial gain, energy conservation, litter abatement, reduction of the waste stream itself and the reduction of its potential to pollute.

It has been stated, in some quarters, that recycling is a waste of time and money! That goods made of recycled materials are inferior! In fact, industries recycle on their production lines, as a matter of course, because recycling is an essential part of good housekeeping to minimise waste and improve the utilisation of their resources. It costs money to buy-in raw materials but it is also expensive to dispose of waste in an environmentally acceptable way.

Sometimes technology introduced into South Africa is obsolete overseas in its country of origin because it is unable to meet that country’s own stringent environmental standards. Our industry needs to be careful about imported technology and must learn to minimise waste. Research and development in waste management and disposal is needed and where the rest of the world is pouring money into the subject, South Africa and business, in particular, has not yet seen the value of supporting research.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to recover the total waste stream therefore industry must ensure that it uses environmentally safe ultimate disposal facilities for unusable waste. However, recycling in South Africa must be viable as a market driven waste reduction technology otherwise there is no valid reason for the existence of a well established recycling industry in the country! In some areas it can be made more viable if we purposefully set about creating markets for products that contain recycled materials. South Africa is actually one of the world leaders in recycling!

TABLE 2 - Recycling Statistics in South Africa4

Category Percentage Recycled

1990 1992 1994 1996 1998
Paper 29.0 28.4 38.0 38.0 38.0
Tin plate 21.0 26.3 29.9 51.0 67.0
Aluminium 36.0 29.6 22.8 50.0 45.0
Plastics 11.0 14.8 17.0 17.0 12.0
Glass 14.0 22.4 19.4 17.6 12.6

Apart from strategic raw materials that may be recovered from the waste stream, e.g. a viable oil and solvent recycling industry exists in South Africa, composting is also taking place in South Africa on a small scale. This process is viable when circumstances enforce the economics, but a number of private companies, e.g. National Plant Foods, continue to be successful after over 20 years of operation. Perhaps it is significant that these are all based on low technology.

Although energy recovery is a major area of development overseas the competition of low priced coal, diesel and cheap electricity severely constrain innovation in this field in South Africa. Landfill gas is being recovered from three landfill sites in South Africa at present and feasibility studies are being carried out on the use of this gas as an alternative fuel to diesel.

Waste products from one industry often prove to be useful feedstocks for other industries e.g. metal finishing wastes and pickling liquors provide chemicals such as ferrous sulphate. Sadly, waste exchanges have not yet become viable in our country.

A number of capital intensive recycling plants have operated unsuccessfully in South Africa, e.g. Robinson Deep's Waste Flow Plant in Johannesburg and the Resource Recycling Plant in Randburg. A labour intensive initiative, Durban's Tempo Recycling operation, also failed. The failures have been attributed to a number of factors including - the "value" of the waste stream was overestimated; the economy had experienced a down swing at the time that the project was launched, and the informal pickers had removed the recyclable materials from the waste stream at source, i.e. before it reached the site etc.

A number of attempts at kerb-side recycling in the Cities of Durban and Johannesburg have also failed because of the apathy of the public! However, these local authorities have not given up…. They have now employed recycling officers!

The European and USA situation is as disconcerting and confusing as our own. What was once believed to merely a question of economics now seems much more of a political football. Despite all the twisting and turning involved in convoluted legislative frameworks designed to reduce waste streams, the quantities of wastes continue to grow! In these countries, the public is readily persuaded to voluntarily sort their own waste but all recyclers have problems with markets that are too small to absorb the recovered waste.

In the case of domestic waste the price rarely covers more than a fraction of the cost of collection and sorting. All the "success stories" associated with capital intensive plants involve subsidies either directly by the state or by other users of the system. The state subsidisation approach is often associated with environmental taxes relating to the developed countries' mind set but administrative difficulties are frequently glossed over. The glass and plastic recycling industries in Europe are in disarray due to an oversupply of material which has created substantial stockpiles. Stockpiles are incinerated or dumped in other countries. Dumping damages the recycling initiatives in the other countries. Dumping also leads to another form of economic neo-colonialism where a strong competitive advantage is enjoyed by companies operating in countries that subsidise recycling. Such companies are paid to use recycled material which disadvantages competitors in countries that do not subsidise recycling. This economic competitive advantage must, inevitably, lead to the emulation of the German legislation by those countries with economies that can afford the additional cost. France has already followed suit! Can a developing country like South Africa afford such a situation? What will be the fate of the poor in the developing world that have to scavenge to survive? In developing countries, a cross-subsidisation approach is sometimes favoured, e.g. Brazil's Curitiba, where a highly centralised local government control model is in place. Is this the example to follow? The message is clear, we need a strong economy to enforce recycling!

The University of East Anglia has researched the validity of the current European Union policy of setting landfill as the least favoured waste management technology. Their findings have refuted the basis on which that strategy was devised however, of more interest in the context of this paper is the point that recycling can be made to pay! Vide the economic cost when drop-off point collection points are used i.e. voluntary transport of recovered waste to conveniently located bottle banks etc. in Table 3 below. The environmental cost relates to the sum of the impacts associated with handling, transporting and processing the waste. On average, the cheapest option for managing domestic waste was recycling, followed by landfill, incineration and then composting.

Table 3 - Cost of Waste Disposal (EU average in Euros per tonne)

Disposal Method Economic Cost Environmental Cost Nett Cost
Landfill 95.3 2 to 20 97 to 115
Incineration 156.1 11 to 23 167 to 179
Recycling (from drop-offs points 80.8 -282 to -17 -201 to 64
Recycling (from kerb-side) 109.8 -230 to -41 -120 to 69

Recycling actually brought in nett gains of up to 201 Euros per tonne - although this varied from country to country and with the material being recycled. In the United Kingdom, for example, recycling non-ferrous metal yielded a nett gain of 979 Euros per tonne whilst the recycling of plastic film incurred a cost penalty of 18 Euros per tonne. Thus the value of the material being recovered is also critical to the total cost savings potential.


A workshop, held under the auspices of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the Institute of Waste Management, identified the following areas of difficulty whilst examining a discussion document on waste management policy issues that had been developed by the KwaZulu-Natal Waste Management Policy Process:

1.0 Legislative framework

The fundamental problem is related to a lack of adequate enforcement! The driving force for change in the waste industry in South Africa must be regulation within appropriately integrated legislation based on an environmentally caring policy supported by a definite strategy to control all the elements of the waste management system. A well planned and adequately staffed regulatory authority structure is required to ensure that, on the basis of good local control, the country's waste stream can be managed.

2.0 Registration system

A system of registering generators, transporters and disposers is required as part of the enforcement issue. Such a register will facilitate monitoring and auditing. It was suggested that the service levy registration system could be used to set up a database which would incorporate all of the above. The database would also assist in the dissemination of accurate information to all the stakeholders.

3.0 Incentives

Incentives are required to motivate the changes that are required. Industry must demonstrate real progress in their reduction of waste to lend credibility to their corporate environmental care policies. The development of new technologies, the dissemination of well established technology and their application in South Africa is a major challenge to local research and development. Waste management is a dynamic, multidisciplinary discipline and development is taking place on many fronts.

4.0 Education

One of the more important elements in a country's waste management system has been consistently overlooked - the training and education of people! Progress at the individual level is critical. Enlightened consumers choose those products that are produced by organisations that exercise a Duty of Care towards the environment. The Duty of Care is a collective responsibility! Where the capacity to understand the situation is lacking this must be remedied at all levels of society through formal and informal education.

5.0 Public Participation

This process must be governed by rules that set standards of acceptable behaviour and time frames for a process that must be binding on all the stakeholders and participants. The existing situation is too open ended.

6.0 Commitment by senior role players

The senior players in the socio-economic and political milieu must be committed to the policy. All sorts of pronouncements are made within the framework of each crisis that arises but these are seldom followed up with appropriate action once the immediate problem has faded from the public view.

7.0 Waste Reduction

Unless there are sound strategic considerations relating to scarce or embargoed materials, market forces and not legislation should determine the extent of resource recovery. Waste disposal is costly when performed at acceptable standards and the recovery of materials from the waste stream also incurs cost and increases the total cost of waste management.

Resource recovery is only economically justified when the cost of the recycled material is less than or equal to that of virgin material and, of course, there is still prejudice against so-called used material. The hidden costs and benefits of recycling especially the long-term environmental and social benefits must be considered when policy decisions are taken.

In line with trends that are beginning to emerge in developed countries, where the application of waste elimination strategies are receiving greater attention, South Africa must also seriously consider the selection of clean technology.


The development of control measures for waste management, appropriate technologies and the application of both in the context of the South African situation is a challenge that must not be neglected. All must co-operate and efforts must be co-ordinated. The National Recycling Forum sees this as its major task. In its membership, directly and indirectly it has all the necessary expertise as well as the international contacts to fulfil this role.

The waste stream becomes almost irretrievable after disposal but material can be collected anywhere between the point of generation and the point of disposal. In developing all the possible opportunities that the waste management system provides for the recovery of material, the following important issues should be addressed:-

- elimination of waste production through clean technology selection;

- extraction of material from the waste stream whether at source, transfer station, depot or landfill site;

- co-ordination of activities between the private and public sectors;

- stabilisation of recycled material markets;

- creation of public awareness and education at all levels;

- establishment of a database on the generation and composition of the waste stream;

- industry specific options must be evaluated individually. In many cases hazardous wastes may be eliminated from the waste stream altogether through appropriate process selection. Often South African industry has installed obsolete, hand-me-down, plant purchased overseas.

Finally, the main objective of the total effort on recycling in the country must be to expand recycling to its fullest market driven potential.


1. Gonn, O and Whitfield A, The Naturalist, Vol 35, Part 3 of November 1991 a publication of the Eastern Cape Branch of the Wildlife Society.

2. Report on the situation of waste management & pollution control in South Africa, prepared by the CSIR for the Department of Environment Affairs, February 1991.

3. Hazardous waste in South Africa, edited by Noble, R G, CSIR Environmental Services: Pretoria, 1992.

4. Packaging Council of South Africa - Recycling in the Packaging and related industries in South Africa, 1998 (currently in the course of preparation).

5. Bond, M, New Scientist of 21 June 1997 - Europe’s rubbish regulations aim at the wrong target.