Our Burning Planet


Burning uncollected waste the top cause of plastic pollution in SA, says report

Burning uncollected waste the top cause of plastic pollution in SA, says report
A recycler stands among burning plastic in Pretoria. Waste management in South Africa has left many households without weekly waste collection and removal service, says a report. This has led to open burning of waste becoming the dominant source of plastic pollutionas people resort to flames to dispose of their waste. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Municipalities across the country are failing to collect the trash. As a result, many South Africans are resorting to burning waste and contributing to plastic pollution’s impact on the environment, suggests a new report.

The open burning of waste accounts for 56% of plastic pollution in South Africa — and it’s the result of inadequate waste collection and disposal services in the country, according to new research.

In South Africa, about 37% of households do not receive weekly waste removal services. As a result, 29% or 196 kilotons of household waste is left uncollected and ends up being improperly disposed of through illegal dumping or burning. This is according to the SA Pathways report released by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on Tuesday, 29 November.

When bin day never comes

This is the first report that has quantified the extent of open source burning’s contribution to plastic pollution, explains Prof Suzan Oelofse, CSIR researcher and contributing author on the report.

“The magnitude of open burning is definitely shocking. It was a lot more than what we expected it to be,” says Oelofse. Open burning accounts for the largest proportion of plastic pollution in South Africa, with land pollution accounting for 30% and aquatic pollution contributing the remaining 14%.

Open burning is predominantly practised in areas where there are no municipal waste removal services, says Lyanda Hlatshwayo, a reclaimer and spokesperson for the African Reclaimers Organisation.

“You will even see schools burning waste in these areas because there is no other alternative to remove waste,” says Hlatshwayo.

“You have to put yourself in the shoes of a person who does not have waste collection services,” says Oelofse.

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When waste is piling up and the smell starts to attract flies and rodents, people turn to burning the waste in order to control it, she explains.

“You really can’t blame people for doing this,” says Oelofse.

While burning does reduce the volume of waste, a large portion of that waste is made up of plastics that, when burnt, release CO2 emissions that are contributing to climate change, as well as toxic and even carcinogenic fumes, says Oelofse.

Open burning is also not totally effective at disposing of waste, and only about 20% of burnt waste is actually burnt away. 

“That means that even after burning, a large portion of that plastic is going to remain in the environment,” explains Oelofse.

plastic pollution

Cattle feed among plastic waste at the burning Enoch Mgijima Regional Waste Disposal Site in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Supplied)

“The environmental and health impacts associated with burning of plastics should be a great concern,” says Oelofse.

Burning plastic waste can release poisonous dioxin particles into the smoke, explains Oelofse. These chemicals do not degrade in nature and will build up in the human body and environment and can cause various types of cancer, according to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar).

Symptom of systemic failure

Open burning of waste is a symptom of failing waste collection services. But it is not just the lack of collection of waste — it’s also the mismanagement of waste removal and disposal.

The country’s domestic waste collection standards allow for different levels of service, so if it is not possible for a municipality to collect waste due to inaccessibility of the area for the vehicles, a municipality may then introduce a communal collection point or dump, explains Oelofse. 

“But then the regulations clearly state that they must be regularly supervised by the municipalities and, currently, we have a lot of municipalities whose landfills are not properly managed.”

There are no fences around the dump sites, which allows easy access for reclaimers… but they “are burning waste and starting fires in the landfills”, says Oelofse.

The reclaimers

The informal waste sector is responsible for collecting and sorting 76% of all plastic waste that is recycled in South Africa, states the Pathways report.

Hlatshwayo argues that when reclaimers resort to burning waste, it is done because of circumstance. “I collect a lot of plastics that have value — I would not burn it because it does not make economic sense,” he says.

The value of materials salvaged by reclaimers is heavily dependent on demand, explains Hlatshwayo.

Demand is often determined by the price of oil.

“If the price of oil is too high, then packaging companies would invest more in recyclables, which is much cheaper. But if the price of oil becomes too low, it makes more sense to go and get virgin plastic, which becomes cheaper than recyclables.”

The price of a single plastic bottle is R7.50, but next week its worth could drop to R2.50, says Hlatshwayo. 

As a result, reclaimers tend to stockpile valuable materials, but because demand fluctuates so rapidly they may have to resort to burning to stockpile the more valuable items, explains Hlatshwayo.

“As an example, the last time I burnt [waste] was because I was collecting cardboard and saving it for months so that I could buy something nice for my daughter,” says Hlatshwayo. “But suddenly demand dropped and it was worthless, and I needed the storage space for more valuable materials.”

Better ways to bin waste

“The important role of informal waste pickers highlights the need to integrate the informal sector into recycling and waste management, as envisaged in the National Waste Management Strategy 2020 and EPR regulations,” says the Pathways report.

“I think they will also need to be a bit innovative around not expecting the municipality necessarily to come up with all the solutions,” says Oelofse.

If a community can come up with solutions to improve waste management services, and incorporate formal jobs for reclaimers that operate in the area, “then they need to come to the municipality and put forward the ideas so that we can start looking at innovative ways of providing a service where the municipality is not effective at the moment”. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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