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Waste Management : Article

Author: Institute of Waste Management Southern Africa

( Article Type: Overview )


What is Waste?

Waste management in South Africa is based on the principles of the White Paper on Integrated Pollution and Waste Management (IP&WM) and the National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS) published by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in 1999 and 2000 respectively and the subsequent enactment of the new National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 2008 (Act No. 59 of 2008).

Waste can be defined in many ways as is evident from the differing definitions adopted in the White paper, the strategy and the Waste Act.
The exact definition of waste is, however, the topic of an ongoing debate because of an increasing global trend to reduce, re-use, rework, recycle, recover, so-called 'waste' products. One person's waste can now become another person's valuable raw material. Also, with changing technologies, availability and cost of original input materials, the demand for, or need to use recovered 'wastes' is changing too.

For example, the gold-extraction process used a century ago on the Witwatersrand mines was relatively inefficient when measured against today's technology. The result is that a great many 'waste' sand dumps have now become very valuable assets to re-mine. The question then is, - when is 'waste' really waste?

A general definition of waste could therefore be redefined as 'something that nobody wants at a particular moment in time and that needs to be disposed of'.

The legal definitions of waste are, however, contained in the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 2008 and the National Water Act, 1998.

South Africa supports the waste hierarchy in its approach to waste management, by promoting cleaner production, waste minimisation, reuse, recycling and waste treatment with disposal seen as a last resort in the management of waste.


Historically, the initial focus of waste management was on 'basic waste management' i.e. the cleansing function. This includes waste storage, collection, transport and environmentally acceptable disposal. Since it safeguards public health and quality of life, by removing the waste from the living and working areas, acceptable levels of basic waste management service provision must be seen as a fundamental.

Once the fundamentals are in place then, in order to promote sustainability with regard to waste management, appropriate waste solutions must be put in place. These encompass a 'cradle-to-cradle' approach (from the source of production beyond the typical 'after-life' management - e.g. via disposal - towards a new lease of life) need to be considered as part of an extended producer responsibility. Finished products and goods need to be designed in a way that they can be easily de-manufactured and dismantled for material recovery and recycling, resulting in the reduction of humankind's reliance on non-renewable resources.


These concepts are not easy to achieve, however, and will require a radical mind shift in our society on the consumer level (demanding waste-wise products) as well as on industrial level (increasing cleaner production technologies). The quest for zero waste and achieving sustainable waste management can be realised through a process of gradual improvement in production efficiency and consumer waste awareness.


The first step is to set achievable targets in reducing the growth of the waste stream and reducing as much waste as possible at source (by preventing it from being generated). We should also be aware and plan for the fact that in aiming for zero waste, it becomes progressively more difficult and more expensive to achieve the higher percentage targets for reducing waste volumes.

Integrated Waste Management (IWM).

WM became mandatory with the coming into effect of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 2008 on 1 July 2009. The Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa recognises the importance of a broad hierarchy of preferred options that look at the waste stream in a cradle-to-cradle approach, namely:


  • Waste avoidance: The reduction of waste at source. Through a deliberate policy of minimising the creation of waste within an industrial process not only reduce waste but also reduce the need for virgin resources to be exploited.

  • Resource recovery: The recovery or retrieving of recyclable materials out of the waste stream or the collection of recyclable materials before they enter the waste stream – for the purpose of re-use or recycling.

  • Re-use: The utilisation of a waste product without further transformation (e.g. the use of old newspapers as wrapping material or using old glass jars for storage).

  • Recycling: The manufacturing of a product that is made from waste materials. This can only be done by a business that is technically equipped to change the properties of a former waste material into a new product (e.g. making plastic pellets out of plastic waste, melting waste glass to make new bottles, melting beverage cans for new metal appliances, etc.).

  • There is a distinction between closed-loop and open-loop recycling. Closed-loop recycling is a process within the same company that generated the waste, whereby the waste material from one process is ‘internally recycled’ to be used for another process step or to make another product. Open-loop recycling means that the waste material leaves the location where it was generated and is sent elsewhere for recycling. Waste exchange programmes can achieve higher recycling rates by making waste from one company available to another for recycling purposes

  • Treatment: The processes of changing the physical and/or chemical properties of a waste product, (e.g. by compaction, incineration, neutralisation of acids and bases and detoxification of poisons).

  • Disposal: The final and least desirable step in the hierarchy, involving land filling of wastes in a controlled manner.


Waste generation in South Africa

Over 42 million cubic metres of general waste is generated every year across the country, with the largest proportion coming from Gauteng province (42%) (DWAF 1997).

In addition, more than 5 million cubic metres of hazardous waste is produced every year, mostly in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal (due to the concentration of mining activities and fertiliser production in these provinces). The average amount of waste generated per person per day in South Africa is 0.7 kg. This is closer to the average produced in developed countries (.73 kg in the UK and 0.87 kg in Singapore), than to the average in developing countries such as 0.3 kg in Nepal (DWAF 1997). By far the biggest contributor to the solid waste stream is mining waste (72.3%), followed by pulverized fuel ash (6.7%), agricultural waste (6.1%), urban waste (4.5%) and sewage sludge (3.6%). (Refer to for future updates)

Materials recovery & recycling in South Africa

"Recycling of waste refers to the separation at source of recyclable materials from the general waste stream and the reuse of these materials. The objectives of recycling are to save resources as well as reduce the environmental impact of waste by reducing the amount of waste disposed at landfills. To meet these objectives, waste separation at source is proposed, as the quality of recyclable materials is higher when separated at source. In addition, recycling has the potential for job creation and is a viable alternative to informal salvaging at landfills, which is undesirable due to the problems of health and safety associated with salvaging" (National Waste Management Strategy, 1999)

Waste disposal

Waste disposal remains the predominant means of managing waste in South Africa and there are an estimated 1,200 landfill sites currently in operation throughout the country. Waste disposal sites are controlled under Chapter 5 of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 2008 (Act 59 of 2008) with effect from 01 July 2009. Technical guidance on the development, operation and monitoring of waste disposal sites is provided through DWAF's 1998 Minimum Requirements. However, the minimum requirements only gain legal standing once translated into permit or licence conditions.

The requirements provide graded standards for:

  • The Handling, Classification and Disposal of Hazardous Waste. This document classifies hazardous wastes into four hazard ratings and prescribes the technical requirements for the receiving landfills.

  • Waste Disposal by Landfill. This document deals with general waste and the requirements for the classes of landfills.

  • Water Monitoring at Waste Management Facilities.

  • Landfill Operations. Sets the minimum requirements for the upgrading of dumpsites, training in waste management and the auditing of waste facilities


Legislative, policy and strategy frameworks

Over the past 20 years, South Africa has made great strides in addressing key issues, requirements and problems experienced in waste management. Although the Environmental Conservation Act (ECA) addressed issues such as littering, permitting of waste disposal sites and regulatory competency, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act, 1996 (Act 108 of 1996) for the first time, guaranteed the right of South Africans to a clean and healthy environment. This was followed by the Draft White Paper on Integrated Pollution and Waste Management for South Africa, which was published in 1998. The White Paper advocates a shift from the present focus on waste disposal and impact control (i.e. end of pipe) to integrated waste management and prevention as well as minimisation. In terms of legal changes this has entailed national government drafting legislation requiring the prevention and minimisation of waste.

The White Paper, in turn, gave rise to the formulation of a National Waste Management Strategy and Action Plans, a collaborative effort between DEAT and DWAF with Danish financial and technical assistance and input by a great many interested and affected parties. DEAT developed a series of user-friendly guidelines called Working with Waste to implement needs identified in the strategy. The two volumes are Guidelines on Recycling of Solid Waste and Guidelines on Waste Collection in High Density and Classified Areas. In an attempt to address the current fragmentation in waste legislation in South Africa and to develop a holistic and integrated approach to waste management, the President of the Republic of South Africa signed The National Environmental Management: Waste Bill into an Act of Parliament in March 2008. The Act took effect from 01 July 2009.

A few of the many separate Acts impacting on waste management are:

  • The South African Constitution (Act 108 of 1996)

  • Hazardous Substances Act (Act 5 of 1973)

  • Health Act (Act 63 of 2003)

  • Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993)

  • National Water Act (Act 36 of 1998)

  • The National Environmental Management Act (Act 107 of 1998)

  • Municipal Structures Act (Act 117 of 1998)

  • Municipal Systems Act (Act 32 of 2000)

  • Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (Act 28 of 2002)

  • Air Quality Act (Act 39 of 2004)

  • National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 2008 (Act 59 of 2008)


Copies of legislation mentioned above, can be sourced from

you can also download Copies of Legislation from


Many South Africans are prone to littering, which has resulted in a dirty country and the expenditure of unnecessarily huge sums of money to clean up the mess (without litterbugs these funds could have been spent on far more productive things, such as housing, schooling and help for the poor). Whilst this is a behavioural problem, the causes are diverse and can be traced back to poor education, unemployment and economic problems and even socio-political issues. It will need a concerted effort by all South Africans to change this mindset.
In an effort to curtail littering caused by plastic shopping bags, the Environmental and Tourism Ministry with effect from 9 May 2003, banned the use of shopping bags thinner than 30 microns. An agreement reached with a number of retail chain stores also resulted in these thicker bags having to be purchased by the customer. This has resulted in a reported drop of some 80% in the manufacture of shopping bags and subsequent job losses. Understandably, not everybody agrees with these measures but it has, without doubt, severely pruned the 'national flower' from the landscape. Similar efforts to curtail the illegal disposal of tyres and rubber are underway, whilst the glass-recycling industry is busy cleaning its own house.

What can you do to improve waste management?

  • See waste as a resource and ensure that all natural resources are managed and protected.

  • Capacitate yourself and build up your knowledge base on acceptable waste management and try and capacitate and educate communities and those around you.

  • Be proud of the area where you live, work and play by not littering or dumping illegally.

  • Inform government departments regarding poor service delivery,

  • Inform the authorities regarding illegal dumping and littering, and perpetrators of these crimes.

  • Pay for the service you receive.

  • Adhere to Municipal By-laws regarding waste management and the environment.

  • Participate in local/community waste reduction and recycling projects.

  • Make a conscious effort to separate waste at source and encourage your municipality to collect source-separated waste. See garden waste as a compost source and introduce home composting.

  • Buy 'green' – reduce the amount of packaging consumed.

  • Reuse waste items.

  • Industries are to make a conscious effort to introduce energy saving, cleaner technology, and waste avoidance and minimisation strategies and initiatives.

  • Industries to actively investigate waste trading, separation at source and recycling.

  • Waste management awareness to be introduced at schools, the workplace, home, community events, etc.

  • Consumers should exercise their choice and buy products that comply with environmental ethics, rather than promoting consumerism.












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