The world discards over 2 billion metric tonnes of waste in a single year – a figure that far outweighs the heaviest structures humankind has ever built. Most of the world’s waste goes to landfills or open dump sites even though 20 – 68%1 of it contains recyclable materials, depending on the region.
As the severity and awareness of the global waste crisis increase, many nations are proposing more sustainable waste management systems that protect the natural environment and preserve scarce resources. Many of these systems include diverting dry waste from landfills to repurpose, recycle, or refurbish consumer products at the end of their life cycle.
While understanding the problem is a promising start, there are still many barriers to establishing a truly circular economy. As income levels and subsequent waste generation levels rise in developing countries, consumers, governments, and product manufacturers will need to work together to manage waste more responsibly.
Adopting a More Sustainable Waste Management System
Landfills are the oldest and most common method of managing solid waste, and the first known landfill sites date back to 3000 BC. Although burying garbage is an ancient concept, it was not widely adopted until the late 1800s when various European cities connected open dumping with the spread of disease. Modern sanitary landfill systems emerged in 1937 as a solution to toxic leachate polluting the soil and groundwater near dumpsites.
The South African Waste Information System facilitates waste management in South Africa, governed by the National Environmental Management: Waste Act. Although the NEM: WA outlines various long-term recycling goals, landfilling is still the dominant waste disposal method used for 90% of the country’s waste.
With many of South Africa’s landfills set to reach full capacity within the next five years, we must drastically and urgently increase our collective recycling efforts to prevent an environmental disaster.
Barriers to Recycling in South Africa
According to a 2018 survey conducted by PETCO, 25% of South Africans do not recycle at all. The study uncovered a generally apathetic attitude towards recycling that prevents people from separating their household waste at the source. In a separate study, consumers cited having insufficient space to store their recyclables, inaccessible facilities, and a minimal understanding of how to separate waste as major barriers to recycling.
Education is crucial for driving consumer participation in national recycling programmes. Consumers need a better understanding of which materials they can and can’t recycle, where to take them, and tips for collecting them neatly.
The Private Sector
South Africa’s new EPR regulations require manufacturers and importers of various consumer products to take responsibility for them at their end-of-life phase to encourage recycling within the private sector. Even if organisations comply with the EPR laws, some actively encourage overconsumption of their products which leads to excessive waste generation.
Electronics producers implement planned obsolescence and enforced upgrade schemes that make their products unusable after a specific period, ultimately forcing consumers to replace them. Furthermore, many appliance manufacturers offer limited warranties that deter people from repairing faulty goods and encourage replacements.
Developing a more profitable market for recycled goods and recovered parts could make end-of-life product take-back programs more beneficial for private companies and encourage recycling.
The Public Sector
National, provincial, and local government collaboration is essential if we hope to develop a centralised recycling system in South Africa. While the NEM: WA outlines many sustainable waste management strategies, unlicensed landfills, illegal dumping, and a lack of infrastructure to support large-scale recycling threaten their efficacy.
The public sector may benefit from upgrading existing waste collection services to facilitate waste separation at the source before investing in brand-new systems. Establishing more autonomous regulatory bodies could provide more effective monitoring and auditing services for public recycling operations.
Four Strategies for Reducing Waste to Landfill
1. Increasing Product Recyclability
Making consumer products and their packaging easier to recycle could make separation at the source much simpler and more convenient. Products should be easy to disassemble to encourage people to take them apart and recycle them at their end-of-life stage. Avoiding plastic coatings, glues, and components made from multiple materials allows manufacturers to offer 100% recyclable products.
Manufacturers can partner with private recycling centres to provide collection services or offer incentives for consumers to return end-of-life products. Making everyday goods easy to recycle is the first step to engaging consumers in a sustainable waste management system.
2. Implementing Right-to-Repair Policy
The right-to-repair movement is centred around allowing end users to repair products like vehicles and electronics without breaching the manufacturer’s warranty. These industries typically restrict access to genuine spare parts, making them unavailable to the general public and forcing people to use approved repair centres at higher prices. The obstacles to repairing a defective device have created a “throwaway culture” around outdated electronics, exacerbating the growing e-waste problem.
Many countries have implemented right-to-repair policies that allow consumers to restore specific products through independent vendors. The Motor Industry Workshop Association founded Right To Repair SA to champion its campaign for autonomous maintenance, repair, and servicing of in-warranty motor vehicles in South Africa.
3. Supporting Green Design
Green design is an umbrella term that refers to minimising the environmental impact of an end product through careful design considerations. Green design exists in construction, engineering, product design, automotive design, and packaging. This approach prioritises using renewable resources and recycled or upcycled materials to build new products. It also focuses on minimising waste by building with fewer fasteners, joints, and seams, leaving no surplus materials, and using biodegradable or compostable components where possible.
Incentivising and supporting green design programmes feed the recycled materials market and help divert recyclables away from landfills.
4. Establishing Extended Producer Responsibility
EPR calls on manufacturers to take accountability for the waste their products generate. Many countries have implemented national EPR schemes that force manufacturers to take an active role in the collection, recycling, and refurbishment of post-consumer goods. The South African government gazetted EPR regulations for the electrical and electronic equipment, lighting, paper, and packaging industries in May 2021.
Enforcing EPR regulations encourages the private sector to invest in waste management – boosting small recycling businesses and supporting informal waste pickers. Growth in the recycling sector is essential to increasing the amount of recyclable waste we can recover from landfills.
Landfilling has become an unsustainable waste management strategy that does not support the high volume of waste a growing population generates. Diverting reusable materials away from landfills to be recycled or refurbished will reduce the demand for non-renewable resources, such as crude oil, in manufacturing. Establishing a sustainable waste management system requires collaboration across the public and private sectors and consumer education, engagement, and participation.
eWASA is a registered producer responsibility organisation (PRO) for the lighting, electrical and electronic equipment, and paper and packaging industries. We work with manufacturers, vendors, and distributors to develop and manage e-waste recycling schemes, take-back programmes, and other sustainable waste management strategies – contact us for more information.