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What will it take to build a collective response to South Africa’s waste problem?

The last resort in any waste hierarchy is landfill or incineration, yet most of South Africa’s waste ends up in dumps, if not strewn across open spaces or littering our streams and oceans. It’s a problem that requires systemic change and individual-level action.

Addressing South Africa’s waste problem needs joint effort from all of us, including consumers, producers, retailers, policymakers, municipalities and waste treatment facilities.

“When confronted with deep, pervasive and layered soc ial problems, it’s not uncommon for individuals to feel despondent, overwhelmed or unsure about how their actions can make a positive difference,” says Rahima Essop, Communications Director at DGMT.

“This is why public innovator, the DG Murray Trust (DGMT) is casting the spotlight on civil society organisations and individuals that are inspiring change in their communities to show that big or small, our actions add up and we can create change together,” Essop explains.

Diverting organic waste away from landfill

South Africa’s waste problem affects everyone, but the poorest among us have fewer buffers. People living in urban areas are more likely to have their rubbish collected than in rural parts of the country, while Informal settlements often have little or no waste removal services and become dumping grounds for waste from other places. Landfills are usually located next to marginalised communities, and living in proximity to waste sites has been shown to put people at greater risk of long-term illness.

“Zero waste initiatives around the globe are founded on principles of social and environmental justice,” says Keith Roman, Director of the Zero Waste Association of South Africa (ZWASA), an organisation supported by DGMT.

ZWASA is testing a zero-waste model in the town of Bredasdorp in the Cape Agulhas Municipality that aims to dramatically decrease the amount of organic waste going to landfill annually. ZWASA is working towards making Bredasdorp the first zero-waste town in the country. The model involves separation of waste at source, door-to-door collection, composting and economic incentives to reduce waste to landfill.

“Separating organic waste at home for composting is an efficient way to reduce methane gas emissions at landfill; methane is a powerful greenhouse gas produced when organic waste decomposes and is contributing to global warming and climate change,” Roman explains.

“Some estimates suggest separation of organic waste and composting can reduce methane emissions from landfills by up to 62%, not to mention that composting helps to improve soil quality for planting vegetable gardens and for large-scale agricultural operations” Roman adds.

Social incentives for re-use and recycling initiatives

Social and economic incentives linked to the things that are most important to people can encourage their participation and collective action in the management, re-use and recycling of waste. This might include municipally supported buy-back schemes or investing in local re-use or recycling businesses.

Participation in clean-ups and waste reclaiming can produce social solidarity, a sense of community and opportunities to earn money. For example, the Soulbent project in Saulsville in Tshwane has been clearing illegal dumpsites with the aid of volunteers for several years. Once a site is cleared, and recyclable material collected, the area is turned into a vegetable garden.

In Diepsloot, the Earthly Touch Foundation builds classrooms out of eco-bricks for a local social outreach project. It has used 60 000 eco-bricks, which are 2 litre plastic bottles stuffed with tightly compacted plastic, sweet wrappers, and other material to construct classrooms, which are cool in summer and warm in winter.

“These initiatives and others highlighted by the Create Change campaign show how social and economic incentives can foster action, encourage recycling and community clean-ups,” says Essop.

“We hope that these stories along with the resources we’ve curated can help drive individual and collective action. This could empower activists and solution seekers to pressure authoritiesto drive systemic change,” Essop concludes.