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What Really Happens to Your Household Waste?

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What Really Happens to Your Household Waste?

How our household waste is managed in South Africa and where it really goes is a question surprisingly few ever think about. Even less of us really know the answer. Most of us are not naive enough to think the process of waste management is eco-friendly but for the most part, we don't really think of it doing that much harm. This couldn't be further from the truth.


Why Even The Most Sophisticated Waste Management Is Far From Eco-Friendly

Waste is a complicated business with many challenges. Our household waste is particularly challenging. There are many things we can do at home to help the environment: waste is just one. Thankfully, South Africa has some of the best landfills in the world. Surprised and impressed? Us too! There are many different ways to manage waste within a city. But, no matter which method of waste management a municipality uses, it always requires LAND - flat, open land, close to the centre of the city.


The Massive Setup

We often don't realise the huge amount of resources that go into setting up our landfills so here is a sneak peak of the process:
  • Once the need for a landfill is agreed a few land options are selected and impact assessments are done. Purchasing of the most suitable land can then happen.
  • Engineers and architects design and approve the site layout, taking into account the infrastructure requirements.
  • Infrastructure is built to accommodate the large, continuous flow of heavy duty traffic.
  • Liquid and methane gas extraction facilities, as well as water treatment plants, are installed.
  • To reduce the risk of leaking toxins into the surrounding area, large holes in the ground are excavated and lined with many layers of complex materials.
  • Recycling stations are set up on site or nearby.
  • Some municipalities will harvest and save indigenous plants to create plant nurseries and wetland ecosystems. These plants are then used to rehabilitate the land.
  • Gas-to-energy plants are sometimes built on site to create energy to power the surrounding infrastructure.
  • Weigh bridges are installed to keep track of how much waste comes into the landfill.
In Durban all new landfills go through this process. Opening a landfill costs well over R100 million and takes an average of 10 - 12 years (More than a decade!) of dedicated resources. Different cities will have different challenges, so costs and timeframes will vary, but it will always be a huge investment of time and resources. You would think after such a massive investment in resources and technology you would at least have a process that is eco-friendly, but sadly this is not the case.

The Ongoing Daily Management

Managing the day to day operations of the landfills that hold our waste also requires enormous cost and resources.
  • Large teams of staff and fleets of fuel-guzzling trucks collect waste throughout the city on a daily basis.
  • Weighbridges are maintained and staffed to keep track of how much waste comes in and how much space is left.
  • Large amounts of water are sprayed onto the site throughout the day to manage the impact of dust and fire risk in the landfill.
  • Bulldozers operate on site all day, shifting materials to maximise area use and ensure the waste is tightly packed.
  • The correct ratios of general waste need to be combined with building rubble and garden refuse. If sufficient building rubble and garden refuse are not available they are bought and transported to the site.
  • Water treatment plants, waste-to-energy plants, and plant rehabilitation nurseries are all maintained and staffed.
It costs millions every year to manage just one site where our waste goes. Each city in South Africa has several waste disposal sites. Each of those sites takes up massive expanses of land near the center of the cities. You would think such a huge investment would only be done for something that lasted forever, but sadly this is not the case. Building new landfills is an ongoing process. Current landfills are filling up and closing as much as 15 years earlier than planned. What most of us don't realise is that once land has been used as a landfill, no development can happen on that land - the land is unsafe and unstable for at least the rest of our lifetime.

Landfills turn flat land, near the center of the city, into vast vacant plots. These plots are too dangerous and unstable for any development.

A large piece of vacant, unusable land is all that remains of the now-closed Springfield Landfill Site in central Durban.
You cannot run cities without somewhere to dispose of waste. This problem gets worse with each passing day. The impact of our waste isn't just limited to protecting the environment. It has even bigger social implications unique to South Africa that we don't consider.