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South Africa vs the world in waste management : better, worse, or not that different?

By Bertie Lourens 13th December 2019 Waste Management

South Africa’s waste management is not without its challenges. But guess what - we’re not alone. Here’s how SA is standing tall in the global arena.

Needless to say, 2019 has been a year of increasing challenge. But with any challenge, there is the scent of opportunity and chance for reinvention. Realities like China’s National Sword policy are proving to be double-edged - sparking chaos but demanding global change, innovation, and shifts in cultural behaviour. Within the markets and on the environmental stage, it’s been a year of immense shaking - that the South African waste sector has experienced firsthand. But if there’s anything 2019 has shown us, it’s that our problems always invite solutions. Here's how South Africa and other nations are rising to meet the hour in the midst of such rapid change and challenge.

A dirty crisis

Probably the biggest news to hit the press over the past couple of years has been on the recycling front. In November 2017, China declared enough on imported recyclables and closed its doors to contaminated plastic, leaving the world’s biggest plastic producers scrambling to find a new partner in trash. Countries like Vietnam, South Korea, and Thailand just don’t have the infrastructure to process 111 million metric tonnes of recyclable waste per annum. Nor do they seem too keen to "be the world's dustbin.'' Just ask Cambodia, who recently vowed to return the uninvited 1600 tonnes (83 shipping containers’ worth) of plastic waste to their American and Canadian senders. 

So countries like America, who single-handedly produce three times the global average of waste, are now in a pickle of epic proportions. Curbside recycling pickup services are closing and urban recycling centres are shutting down across the country. Recycling is on the downswing in America, but the rubbish just keeps piling up. In this day and age, when adaptability and agility are pure survival skills, it doesn’t always pay to have deep roots and a long legacy.

This is where South Africa stands to gain.

Raising the stakes

One of the advantages of being a small player in the global economy is that you can stay nimble. You can glean and innovate and apply best practices to your local context - without the burden of a legacy to leapfrog. For the past few years South Africa has been implementing new legislation like the recent carbon tax bill, based on pre-Kyoto protocols in Europe and abroad. The new standards are hard-balled, indeed. But they’re also progressive and highly aspirational. They’ll hold us to a standard we may not be ready for, both as citizens and business, but arguably they’ll help us to get there a lot quicker - whether we want to or not.

Tightening up

Companies and governments around the world are being forced to find creative solutions to spearhead sustainability and safeguard the future. In Europe, policymakers are throwing more than $120 million to come up with better plastic designs and durability for recyclability. They’re toying with the idea of banning microplastics, along with a tax on single-use plastics and tighter port regulations to prevent ocean dumping. 

And here, within our shores, South Africa is taking strong measures to crack down on hazardous disposal and rampant waste. Look at the recent liquid waste ban as a case in point - regulations that are forcing a new standard of waste consumption and disposal on both waste producers and the industry. In addition, the Western Cape’s organic waste ban intends to ban 100% of organic waste to landfill by 2027, and 50% by 2022.

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Birthing innovation

The new legislation is forcing companies to think outside the box and redefine the stakes of engagement. Everywhere, companies are positioning themselves to become market leaders who meet compliance but also find new and better ways of doing business. And with the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation in our South African blood, it’s a challenge well received. As a nation and business community, we are comfortable with change and adaptability, and familiar with finding the gap of opportunity. In a way, we’ve never been more poised for possibility than now.

And let’s be honest, rising taxes and global temperatures also mean we’ve never been more incentivised than now. Waste management today is a very serious (and potentially costly) business; organisations can no longer tip their hat to it but must throw their best resources and vision to see it through. With the right service provider, you  can save money and future proof your company footprint, as well as leave some breathing room for the planet. SA’s most progressive organisations are picking up on this truth, and starting to see some very positive results.

2019, to say the least, has been a mixed bag of challenge and risk; opportunity and innovation. And 2020 doesn’t promise to be any less complex. But if anything, we’re seeing that sustainable waste management is no longer just an aspiration in the business world, but a growing imperative. Low carbon is the future. The sooner organisations awake and adapt to this reality, the better off they’ll be.

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Bertie Lourens

Author Bertie Lourens

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