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Why is landfilling still the ‘go-to’ for waste management in SA?

A recently completed project funded by the Waste Research, Development and Innovation Roadmap set out to understand the root causes for the dominance of landfilling as a waste management option in South Africa.

The National Environmental Management: Waste Act (No. 59 of 2008) and National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS) call for the increased diversion of waste away from landfill towards reuse, recycling and recovery.

This is in line with the waste management hierarchy, according to which waste should first be avoided, reduced, reused, recycled or recovered – with disposal as a last resort. It is also in line with the concept of a circular economy, which is central to the recently updated NWMS.

However, the majority of waste generated in South Africa is still disposed of (either to landfill or to a communal/own dumpsite, or illegally dumped).

This represents a significant loss of valuable resources that could potentially be recovered and recycled for further processing. Disposal of waste also gives rise to significant social and environmental externalities, while many municipalities are rapidly running out of landfill airspace.

In a recently completed project funded by the Waste Research, Development and Innovation Roadmap, we set out to understand the root causes for the dominance of landfilling as a waste management option in South Africa, and to identify relevant solutions for addressing the issues and increasing the diversion of waste from landfill towards alternative waste treatment technologies.

Based on consultation with experts and stakeholders, a wide range of barriers to investment in alternative waste treatment were identified.

Some of the issues identified include:

1. Legislative barriers

• Municipalities are mandated to collect and dispose of waste; KPIs for municipal waste managers are therefore based on the quantities of waste disposed.

• Legislation inhibits private sector participation or investment in waste diversion or beneficiation activities, or makes it a long and complex process to get projects off the ground.

2. Low cost of landfilling relative to alternative treatment technologies, such that there is no incentive to divert waste from landfill

• Many landfill sites are unregulated, unlicensed and/or non-compliant, and therefore the cost of landfilling is artificially low.

• Lack of full cost accounting or cost recovery for waste services.

• Externalities (social and environmental impacts) associated with landfill disposal are not internalised in tariffs.

• High capital and operating costs are associated with alternative treatment technologies.

3. Lack of funding to upgrade landfill infrastructure, or to invest in alternative treatment technologies

4. Perceived lack of benefits from alternative waste treatment technologies

• Where there is still airspace available, there is no immediate benefit from diverting waste.

• Failure to properly understand or account for the benefits, which are often long term or indirect in nature.

• Market prices for recyclables are too low relative to the costs of collecting and recovering.

• The fluctuating market price of virgin materials (linked to global commodity prices) relative to recycled materials means there is no guaranteed market for recycled materials, which disincentivises investment in recycling infrastructure.

• In many cases, there is a lack of markets for recyclables, or for the end-products produced from recycled materials.

• Some recycled materials (or the end-products produced from such materials) are unable to compete in the market, because virgin alternatives tend to be cheaper (particularly when oil prices are low).

5. Behavioural and institutional issues

• Government has not created a sufficiently effective enabling environment.

• Producers don’t take responsibility for their products at end of life.

• It is difficult to change deeply entrenched behavioural patterns among waste generators.

• Institutional issues exist within municipalities.

• A lack of effective communication, collaboration and partnerships pervades the value chain.

During the project, we identified a broad range of solutions to these issues, and for stimulating investment in alternative treatment technologies. Given the complex nature of the problem, and the broad range of issues to be addressed, no single type of intervention will be effective on its own – nor will actions by any one role player be effective in isolation.

Instead, implementing the waste hierarchy and transitioning to a circular economy will require a coherent set of mutually reinforcing regulatory, economic and other interventions, with actions required by all relevant role players – including the various tiers of government (from national to local), industry, waste generators, etc.

In particular, the outcomes of the study make it clear that a landfill tax, which is often discussed as a potential ‘silver bullet’ for diverting waste from landfill, would not be effective, and would in fact end up doing more harm than good.

A number of prerequisites need to be in place before a landfill tax can be considered, including: • licensing of landfill sites, and compliance with permit conditions as well as norms and standards

• viable alternatives to landfill disposal (e.g. options for recycling) to enable a change in behaviour without stimulating an increase in illegal dumping

• effective access control, functioning weighbridges and adequate reporting systems, to enable accurate monitoring and reporting of waste quantities

• capacity to monitor and control illegal dumping • full cost accounting, and cost-reflective gate fees and waste tariffs, to enable cost recovery

• municipalities must be in a sufficiently sound financial position for payment of the tax. Indeed, addressing these issues would in and of itself increase the cost of landfilling (and thereby result in a diversion of waste from landfill), even in the absence of a landfill tax.

In this way, the potential negative impacts of such a tax (e.g. stimulating an increase in illegal dumping, negative impacts on municipal finances, etc.) can be avoided.

Strictly speaking, environmental taxes (such as landfill taxes) are only appropriate for addressing specific market failures, such as externalities. The externalities associated with landfill disposal are a relatively small driver of the current gap between the costs of landfilling and alternative treatment technologies.

Environmental taxes are not appropriate when there are underlying structural issues – e.g. pervasive underpricing of waste services due to unlicensed or non-compliant landfill sites, lack of full cost accounting, tariffs set below the levels required for cost-recovery, etc. These issues need to be addressed before a landfill tax could be considered.

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