Big changes coming for waste collection in South Africa – and you may have to pay more

 ·7 Feb 2023

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) has gazetted its draft Household Hazardous Waste Management Strategy for public comment.

The strategy’s main purpose is to establish the framework for municipalities in the country to build new and improved waste management programmes – with key changes involving the establishment of systems to get rid of electronic and electrical equipment and light sources like fluorescent tubes, bulbs and LEDs.

According to the DFFE, South Africa’s waste management services are severely underdeveloped, and the harmful properties of household hazardous waste have an adverse impact on the environment and public health.

The scope of current hazardous waste management programmes basically draws the line at dealing with waste/used oils, with private sector management systems being in place since 1994. Since then, however, no new waste management programmes have been established.

One of the earliest waste management systems is the programme for lead acid batteries, which has been in place in South Africa since 1942.

Working with the private sector, the department is in the process of arranging new waste management programmes for electronic and electrical equipment waste (WEEE) as well as light source waste, with the main strategy looking at recycling as a method.

However, the department is still trying to establish an effective system for this waste management and the coverage of any programmes.

Incentivising recycling

According to the department, with household waste like lead acid batteries, the inherent value of the lead in the batteries was a strong incentive for people to recycle them. Consumers can use a producer-driven ‘one for one’ return system, where they are entitled to a scrap discount or can avoid levies on purchased products.

Any waste batteries that are not picked up by voluntary recycling are collected in large volumes by waste pickers who see the economic value.

Waste oils in the country do not carry the same value incentives, but private waste collectors – almost 200 currently operating in the country – lead the collection, recycling or incineration of the waste. This is limited in private households, the department noted.

For WEEE and light source waste, the department is now looking for similar incentives and programmes to be adopted.

WEEE collection and treatment is undergoing transformation due to authority-mandated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations, the department said. As part of the regulations, the financing, and contract for the collection and treatment of electronic waste are included, and new infrastructure has to be established to do this.

Producers are obligated to establish their own collection and treatment systems or join a private sector organisation that does it.

The department noted that WEEE contains parts and components with high value and is also an attractive material for waste pickers in the country. So while WEEE collection does exist in the country today, only around 10% of this material is recycled.

The case for light source collection and treatment is less clear, however, with the department saying that authority-mandated EPR is currently under implementation.

The big problems

While the strategy has lofty goals for dealing with this hazardous waste, it is cognisant of the reality in South Africa.

Specifically, the department noted that waste management cannot be handled on a national level, and it will be up to local governments and municipalities to implement these programmes.

Normal waste collection is already a challenge to many local municipalities that are crumbling under financial pressures and constraints – and hazardous waste management is more complex and carries a higher cost.

Financing thus remains a significant hurdle.

The incentivised and voluntary programmes do not recover the costs from the materials they draw in – relying on private sector financing. The plans for the WEEE and light source waste management are based on mandatory fees from producers to be paid into each respective programme.

The department said that the key principle in waste management is that “the polluter pays” – allocating the costs of waste management to the person responsible for pollution.

As such, for household waste, the waste generator can be considered the individual households, the producers of the products, and the consumers buying the products that end up becoming waste.

Some of the ‘economic instruments’ that could be used to deal with costs include:

  • Fees collected from citizens as part of a general tariff for waste services. Currently, this is a fixed tariff but could become a progressive one.
  • External funding for investments
  • Voluntary producer funding
  • Advance recycling fees
  • Materials tax, input tax, or product tax. These would also deter the overuse of harmful materials and products.

One of the problems with trying to get households to pay for hazardous waste management is that if it becomes a bigger cost burden, consumers will gravitate towards the cheaper options.

“Since sound hazardous waste management is more expensive than management of domestic waste for corresponding amounts, considerations must be made that the charges to households do not turn out to be a negative incentive for households,” the department said.

In other words, the department said that any fee structure should not make it more appealing for households to put hazardous waste with normal domestic waste – which carries a cheaper cost – but should rather incentivise them to go to the effort of splitting the waste and using the correct collection systems.

To this end, the department recommends that an added charge for dealing with hazardous waste is not added to municipal tariffs, but suggests that a number of “free” hazardous waste collections are included, with a service charge for those who use it more frequently.

The full strategy can be read below:

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