Turning the Wheels on Waste


Household Waste Collection in Contemporary South Africa

Waste as a part of Life

Research into waste and its societal implications reveals a fascinating look not only at the Waste Management Industry; but also at the role waste plays in our lives at a social, environmental, political and economic level. The starting point, to better understand this facet of society, is to consider waste management from a systemic perspective. A Solid Waste Management System is the framework that outlines what happens to solid waste after it has been generated. Waste comes from many sources; domestic, commercial, sanitary, non-hazardous, construction, medical and hazardous.

Once produced, solid waste is likely deposited into on-site storage (pre- waste collection storage), from there it may be collected and transported to either a materials recovery plant for recycling, incinerator (only medical) or disposal site. This simple practice has meandered throughout history, shuffling through social, economic and political processes of change along the way.

In modern-day South Africa; with its high rates of urbanisation, increasing population growth and large economic disparities within communities, those responsible for waste management have had to provide innovative and cost- effective methods of waste collection which are at once acceptable to communities and sustainable to the environment.

Recognised by Government as a priority, the availability of appropriate waste receptacles is assured by Parliament and budgeted for by the Treasury.

According to the latest Census Results, in 2013, 77% of South Africans live in formal dwellings and 66% of household waste is removed by local Municipalities. It is estimated that nationally approximately 40% of all South Africans use wheelie bins for disposing of their household waste.

The Waste Management Act

The primary objective of the Waste Management Act of 2009 is to protect health, well-being and the environment. It aims to do so, by providing reasonable measures for:

- minimising the consumption of natural resources
- avoiding and minimising the generation of waste
- reducing, re-using, recycling and recovering waste
- treating and safely disposing of waste as a last resort
- preventing pollution and ecological degradation
- securing ecologically sustainable development while promoting justifiable economic and social development
- promoting and ensuring the effective delivery of waste services
- remediating land where contamination presents, or may present, a significant risk of harm to health or the environment
- achieving integrated waste management reporting and planning

A recent CSIR study revealed that only 3.3% of South Africa's urban population regularly recycled household waste in 2010. This finding is undescorred by another study, also conducted by the CSIR, which shows that, of the estimated 19 million tons of municipal waste generated in South Africa in 2011, about 25% were mainline recyclables such as glass, paper, tins and plastics.

Separating recyclables at source (i.e. households, commercial sites, etc.) level is a requirement in terms of the Waste Act. The National Waste Management Strategy requires that by 2016 all metropolitan municipalities, secondary cities and large towns will have initiated programmes for waste separation at source. That means 4.75 tonnes of recyclables could have been recovered in 2011 (CSIR Report, 2012). Similarly, the South African Waste Information Centre found that 10% of all waste generated in South Africa was recycled in 2011. Waste management in South Africa is thus still heavily reliant on landfilling as a waste management option, with 90.1% of waste generated being disposed of to landfill in 2011 (National Waste Information Baseline Report, 2012).

A Short History of Household Waste Receptacles

Though garbage containers and bins had been around for many decades in various forms (specifically for un-burnt waste), it was only in the mid-Twentieth Century that a standardised waste holder was introduced; the galvanised metal dustbin. The single most noticeable attribute of the metal dustbin of the 1950’s and 1960’s, when compared to early versions of waste receptacles, was its size. Early forms of bins were relatively small; but as the twentieth century unfolded in the aftermath of two World Wars, a growing middle-class and the more formal emergence of consumerism, a commensurate growth in bin size resulted. Additionally more stringent regulations pertaining to health and specifically pollution control emerged in cities, ordaining smoke-free zones, while a more centralised approach to waste disposal such as Municipal Incinerators also developed. Collectively these, and other factors, all conspired to usher in a new phase in the development of waste management.

The resulting ash would then be taken to the ash-pits outside the home, often with an access door for easy removal by Municipal Collectors. The ash in its own right had value and was used for covering ablutions, in brick making or road building. The responsibility for disposing of waste (in its primary form) therefor resided with the homeowner. However, the onset of the Industrial Revolution resulted in a significant change in not only how waste was disposed of, but also in terms of what was understood to be waste. During this period, as new energy sources replaced open coal fires and families grew increasingly frustrated at the dry-waste removal only policies of local governments, a new means of waste collection emerged.

A Growing Waste Problem

The principle reason for the increase in the size of metal bins was changes in the composition of a typical bin of household waste. Now, waste increasingly became lower in density but higher in volume; especially in the form of packaging and disposable materials, in-line with the maturation of baby-boomers. During the period when dustbins were being established on British streets, public health and cleanliness imperatives continued to shape the organisation of waste services, with the management intention of changing the physical characteristics of refuse so that it would be "free from odour, lose its attraction to vermin and cease to be a danger to health" (Flintoff and Millard, 1969, p175). These requirements, coupled with the shift in responsibility towards Municipalities and away from households, ultimately resulted in not only a new way of understanding waste management, but more significantly in waste essentially taking on a new form. Not only had households largely ceased to burn most of their waste, an entirely new economic culture had developed which increasingly produced more packaging, embraced planned obsolescence and encouraged disposability.

Plastic Bags

The technological advances in manufacturing, hastened by the developments of the Second World War, introduced new materials and thus opportunities to industries. One such material was polyethylene and in Canada three Inventors, working independently, al stumbled upon the idea of making plastic bags out of this new material in the 1950’s. Though initially these Inventors serviced small local markets, they son found much bigger opportunities in supplying these bags to hospitals, office buildings and as liners for metal garbage bins. In many parts of the world plastic garbage bags became the receptacle of choice for disposing of, especially household, waste. However, due to changing sentiments regarding personal stewardship, technological advances in waste management and an increased awareness (mitigated through media) regarding the devastation caused by plastic pollution, plastic bags have come to be less acceptable as an appropriate means for disposing of waste. Accordingly, the opportunity arose for a more robust, cost-effective and practical solution for managing residential waste.

Wheelie Bins

Though history records early variations of what is today known as ‘wheelie Bins’ as far back as the Roman Empire, these early versions where mobile but some degree but mostly impractical and dangerous. The 1970’s saw the introduction of the wheelie Bin as we know it today, a German invention, which quickly gained recognition and acceptance by households and municipal services alike for having much greater capacity and for the first time allowing flexibility in how waste is collected. By the 1980’s wheelie Bins had internationally become the favoured option for residential and commercial Waste Management being recognised for significantly changing both the quality and quantity of waste collected. Criticisms levelled against wheelie Bins have ben that they are to large, and facilitate the greater production of waste, and also that due to their size, homeowners are again shifting the responsibility for separating waste to the utility companies. Notwithstanding, the mobility afforded by wheelie Bins and the ability of collection vehicles to automatically empty them has significantly increased the efficiency with which waste is collected and transported.

Meeting the Waste Management Needs in Contemporary South Africa

The South African ‘waste landscape’ is as varied as it is wide. Broadly speaking then, the options for residential household waste collection are either Wheelie Bins or Plastic Refuse Bags. Metal Bins have all but disappeared.

Choosing the most appropriate waste management strategy for a particular community needs to consider the following; affordability, accessibility, education level, on-site storage capacities, secondary benefits, facilities & infrastructure, distance to disposal site and pollution potential(Built Environment Guidelines: 201,Ch.1, p.6).Each of these factors should serve as filters through which decisions are made as to which Residential Waste Collection option – wheelie Bin or Plastic Bag is most suited for the Community in question.

1. Cost

Considering that a budget allocation (from the Treasury) is available for all communities, formal and informal settlements alike, the wheelie Bin represents a unit in terms of revenue recovery, which is guaranteed. In contrast, bags are an ongoing weekly, monthly and annual expense. Bags also carry an indirect cost in terms of supply chain management due to the need for ongoing purchasing, storage, shrinkage and distribution.

2. Collection

Bags are faster to collect under the right circumstances. However, the inherent problem is that the method of collection is not only very manual but also physically demanding, since the bags need to be picked up and flung onto collection trucks. This very manual process poses the very real possibility for injury of workers with potential long-term effects which creates staffing challenges within Municipalities.

Conversely, the collection of wheelie Bins is mechanised, thus almost completely eliminating this instance of injuries on duty. Collections at well over 100 collection points per day are standard for wheelie Bin locations, depending on proximity of dwellings and distance to landfill site.

3. Waste Management Education

Waste Management is a dynamic process and functions optimally when every part of the system is involved. Communities at every economic level, but especially those that have lower economic or education levels, need to continuously be included in the dialogue regarding waste. Not only in order to lessen the potential for pollution but also since there are very real possibilities to create income generating opportunities through recycling and collection initiatives. The use of garbage bags in such communities may serve short-term needs but in the long run may be counter-productive in creating sustainable income-generation for local communities. The use of bags is an ongoing cost with little or no economic (scrap) value so it often lands up on a disposal site. When sent to Materials Recovery Facilities, the bags are ripped apart by an automated process which breaks any and al glass in the bag. As a result any paper that may be contained in the bags is contaminated, making it unrecoverable. Research also shows that the lower economic level of a community the more prevalent stray animals are in the area. These animals often rip open bags, while scavenging for food, making it even more difficult for recyclables to be recovered as it’s containment unit 'the bag' has been destroyed. Consequently increasing street sweeping and area cleansing budgets.

4. On-site Storage Facilities

No clear limit on the amount of bags being put out by households is enforced. Anything more than the average weekly allowance of 3 garbage bags per household therefor translates into a loss of revenue for the collections agency. Bins represent a finite quantity of waste per household and as such a unit of revenue. Waste Collectors can easily and accurately calculate actual figures collected and revenue earned. The average South African household generates around 1kg of waste per person per day.

The profile of waste generated also differs depending on the level of income of the household; mid- to high- income households have a fairly even spread of waste consisting of rubble, soil, ash, organics, papers, glass, plastics, metal and textiles. Low-income households, on the other hand, have a waste-profile which largely (more than three-quarters) consists of rubble, soil, ash and organics. Accordingly, collecting waste from low-income households in plastic bags, though understandable at some levels, is actually les ideal due to the inherent composition and weight of its contents.

5. Durability of bins

wheelie bins have a warrantee for 5 years but it has a true life expectancy of approximately 10 years. The bins are left in the care of the household who is ultimately responsible for it. This provides the household with an opportunity to more easily separate waste into recyclable and non-recyclable waste, since they are able to divide the waste more efficiently, thus allowing for more responsible household waste management. In addition, sustainable opportunities are also created for secondary businesses to emerge, such as bin-cleaning services and recycling collection services.

6. On-site handling and storage

Collecting plastic refuse bags is a very manual process, requiring lifting, carrying and heaving. Conversely wheelie Bins are mobile and carted around on wheels, while emptying the contents is a mechanised process. Though collection points for plastic refuse bags allow for more centralised collection, the bag film is easily pierced or snagged, allowing liquid waste to seep out, thereby attracting animals and vermin to these centralised points. Wheelie Bins are sealed units and are largely impervious to animal advances. Once collected, the waste from wheelie Bins are more conducive to being recycled since it is easier to be handpicked on conveyor belts at Material Recovery Facilities.

7. Distance to Collection Site

Suburban settings generally allow collection truck aces to each household. Rural and informal settlements often utilise central collection points, in which the use of bags is easier as bins do not have to be managed of site.

8. Pollution Potential

wheelie bins have a scrap value the manufacturers will stand by, meaning it will never end up on a landfill site. Animals cannot aces the waste in the wheelie bins so this increases the cleanliness of the street or suburb. Plastic garbage bags are not conducive to recycling as it has to be manually torn on Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) conveyor belts. By comparison, wheelie Bins are aesthetically pleasing and can be stored safely with no smells for up to 9 or 10 days. Bags go to landfill sites for disposal, thus becoming waste themselves.

Bins of the Future

The central theme for future waste and bin collection is traceability. The saying goes that if you cannot measure it you cannot manage it. Waste needs to be measured both in terms of its composition and weight. Profiling waste in this manner will allow Municipal Services to not only administer the process more efficiently, but also to charge waste generators more accurately. The most obvious way of managing waste in this manner is to use RFID chips, something which is not viable for reasons of cost and logistics when it comes to Plastic Bags. Wheelie Bins on the other hand can (and have ben) easily fitted with RFID chips which enable much better waste management. In addition, wheelie Bins also have unique serial numbers and branding which make it conducive to ‘pay as you generate’ transactions for the future while compactor trucks can be fitted with load-cells, thus allowing for the in-process weighing of waste generators’ waste. Once waste has ben accurately measured, it can also be accurately charged for which is the primary goal of traceability.

Setting the Wheels in Motion

More than an undesirable by-product of our lives waste is a footprint of how we live, and can only be managed within an understanding of the systemic flow that produces it and the social, economic and political forces which shape the system. Effective waste management has to be holistic. This document has focused on just one part of this system, the Waste Bin, and considered not only its historic context but also its contemporary use and how the wheelie Bin specifically may in future allow for biter measurement and management of generated waste.

It is clear that wheelie Bins allow for a much more sustainable service by Service Providers and practical solution for homeowners and offers the best solution, at a household waste management level, for achieving the zero waste ambitions set out by the Waste Management Act.