Local government waste management and the achievement of Commitment 5 of the Green Economy Accord

The article elucidates how technological, human, economic, and social capacity at the local government level have contributed to achieving Commitment 5 of the Green Economy Accord and provided the best strategies and practices to support waste recycling and reuse in South Africa.

Waste management context in South Africa
The South African population is increasing continuously. A recent household survey indicated an increase in population from 46 million in 2002 to 59 million in 2020. This increase also means increasing waste in South Africa. A study conducted in 2017 revealed the generation of 121 million tonnes of waste. This increase is exacerbated by uncontrolled urbanisation, exerting pressure on urban municipalities’ capacity to deliver adequate services. Statistics indicate that an average of 62.7% of household waste in South Africa is collected by local authorities, with 84.5% generated in rural areas and 12.5% in urban areas. According to the WWF, 90% of the generated waste goes to landfills. It is estimated that 10 million tonnes of food waste is landfilled annually. Food losses across the value chain translate to 2.8 and 4.14 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and one-fifth of agricultural production water loss. At the same time, energy used for agricultural production, packaging and transportation is wasted. This loss has implications for water, energy and food scarcity.

From a sanitation point of view, 32.4% of South Africans use pit latrines. Pit latrines are rarely emptied and in areas where it is done, the faecal sludge is buried onsite or illegally dumped into the environment. Some municipalities are also struggling to attain the green drop status, with most of the wastewater discharged into the environment without complying with the standards for safe discharge. This action is not limited to South Africa alone; the discharge of fairly treated wastewater and faecal sludge into water bodies is also a regional and global concern. South Africa is a water-scarce country, receiving below the international average rainfall. Meanwhile, most of the population is food insecure due to low food production from erratic rainfall patterns. Anthropogenic activities, such as the discharge of untreated wastewater into freshwater bodies, exert additional pressure on the demand for freshwater in domestic, industrial and agricultural sectors.

Human excreta, solid and organic wastes discharged into the environment are contributing to pollution-related problems such as emissions of greenhouse gases, disease outbreaks and unpleasant recreational areas. Therefore, action toward sustainable waste management is urgently needed to protect the environment from pollution while dealing with socio-economic issues such as disease outbreaks, poverty and hunger. Diversion of waste from landfills is one way to create employment. Plastic SA is involved in over 1 800 companies, mainly small, micro, and medium enterprises (SMMEs), employing over 60 000 people from 260.

In addressing environmental pollution, the South African government took a different paradigm towards waste management, shifting from conventional “use and dispose of” to a closed-loop “circular economy” approach. The National Environmental Management (NEMA) Act 59 of 2008 was adopted to promote waste minimisation and to encourage recycling. In cognisance of climate change challenges and unemployment, on 17 November 2011, the South African Government and its social partners signed a Green Economy Accord to set a new pathway to creating green jobs and economic development by 2020. Number 4 (Commitment 5) of the Green Economy Accord focused on waste reuse, recycling, and recovery. Furthermore, the government’s efforts to promote a green economy were amplified by developing various guidelines and policies to guide norms and standards for waste recycling. In addition, the National Waste Management Strategy 2020 was updated to align with lessons learnt, the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, and National Development Plan 2030.

Although there are various technological advancements to promote valorisation and reuse initiatives, almost 90% of the generated waste is landfilled, and 87% of municipalities need more infrastructure and capacity to manage and pursue minimisation strategies effectively. In addition, despite the high costs to municipalities associated with increasing waste volumes at landfills and the complexities involved in opening new landfills once they are filled, waste recycling practices are not widely implemented. However, with increased awareness of these challenges, there is a need for a clear understanding of why Commitment 5 of the Green Economy Accord projects is not being effectively implemented at the local government level.

Opportunities for waste recycling and reuse in contributing to the Green Economy Accord
Recycling waste streams such as organic waste (food waste, human excreta and garden waste) and inorganic wastes (plastic, metal, glass and many more) has the potential to promote environmental sustainability, economic development and social cohesion. Some of the opportunities brought by organic waste recycling include energy generation and composting. However, these waste streams are not being fully utilised and instead remain trapped in illegal dumps and landfills. This underutilisation is due to a lack of incentives by the local government sector to support waste pickers, women and other small-scale SMMEs in waste recycling. In addition, there is no adequate knowledge of other health and environmental benefits associated with waste recycling apart from income generation.

Key role players for collaborations and partnerships in waste recycling and reuse by municipalities
Various key players are critical to achieving the waste management agenda and a green economy in South Africa, especially at the local government level. These include local government (metropolitan, district, and local municipalities), waste pickers, the private sector (formal and informal), the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), and households. While local government provides the regulatory platform, SALGA  and other stakeholders have a role to play in supporting ailing municipalities.  Households and waste pickers are also instrumental in minimising waste, recycling, and reusing. However, there is no supervisory board to oversee municipal operations and the private sector in waste recycling activities.

Standards and norms of waste recycling and minimisation
South Africa can adopt some waste recycling best practices from developed countries, such as China and Germany and developing countries, such as Namibia. Global best practices include public-private partnerships, an enabling legal environment, innovative materials and recycling processes, eco-friendly industry parks, and the formalisation of waste picking.

Capacity-building interventions to promote waste recycling and reuse in the local government sector
Due to limited financial capacity, local municipalities cannot fully utilise waste recycling opportunities. The lack of sufficient financial incentives for waste collection leads local authorities to prioritise waste disposal over recycling. However, public-private partnerships are needed to capacitate local municipalities to implement waste recycling activities with state-of-the-art infrastructure. Most South African municipalities are taking the future of the waste recycling and reuse paradigm by bringing the youth and children into the picture through capacity-building interventions such as schools and community waste recycling campaigns. One of the challenges in the speedy implementation of sound waste recycling activities is the lack of skilled waste recycling officials in municipalities with the passion and knowledge to drive sound recycling programs. The recruitment process for municipal recycling officers should also consider academic qualifications and experience in the sector as well as the training of existing staff.

Implications of water recycling and reuse concerning local economic development
Water recycling has been acknowledged globally as one of the approaches to stimulate local economic development. There are numerous opportunities for water recycling and reuse across various sectors, including industrial, agricultural, and domestic use. Local municipalities possess untapped financial mechanisms that can stimulate economic development in rural areas, creating prospects for wastewater generation and its potential utilisation. One example of such initiatives is redirecting the municipal infrastructural grant towards constructing sanitation systems that generate wastewater, which can be linked to agricultural practices. For example, programs can be introduced to eliminate unsafe sanitation infrastructure and implement hygienic waterborne systems in rural schools. South Africa has the necessary legal framework and practical guidelines to guide water recycling activities. Despite its existence, water recycling is rarely practised at the local government level. One of the challenges is the lack of knowledge and awareness regarding existing standards and norms for the safe, sustainable and acceptable recycling of sanitation wastewater. Despite scepticism in handling household wastewater, various studies show some farmers have the appetite to use it for the irrigation of crops. Even some municipal officials have confirmed their willingness to consume food from wastewater irrigation only if they are assured that there are no health risks.

Municipalities have opportunities to stimulate economic development through recycling and reusing various organic and inorganic waste streams. However, the following issues should be taken into consideration:

  • The role of women and youth in waste recycling, the formalisation of waste pickers, introduction of the enhanced waste value chain to incentivise small-scale recyclers, consideration of innovative organic waste value chains and coordinated inter-municipal waste management strategies.
  • Funding interventions from the national government, through the national treasury, to increase the budget of the national department responsible for environmental affairs may help to capacitate waste recycling down to the municipal level.
  • The national government may incentivise local municipalities’ staff training programs and include waste recycling in academic curriculums.
  • Municipalities should engage with the private sector (retailers), and regulatory boards like the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, the Department of Health, and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to develop a policy on the safe use of treated sewage wastewater in agriculture. The DTI and the Foreign Affairs Department have a role to play in stimulating viable international markets for sewage wastewater products.
  • Municipalities should develop wastewater reuse in agriculture programmes in their integrated development plans as part of the green drop points. The reuse process could begin with the irrigation of non-food crops, and local farmers could receive training in this regard. Subsequently and if the policy permits, these groups could be contracted to produce food crops using sewage wastewater.

This article is part of a series reporting on research commissioned by the Local Government Sector Education & Training Authority (LGSETA) (Contact: matodzir@lgseta.org.za) 

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