Published in ReSource magazine, November 2014

TalkinBoutWaste ImageIn recent years, the South African government has passed a series of laws which are fundamentally changing the landscape of the waste and recycling industry. These laws – the National Environmental Management: Waste Act and its amendments – have set the scene for wholesale regulatory and institutional reform of the multi-billion rand industry which employs people and delivers jobs by the tens of thousands.

“We are standing at the threshold of a waste revolution” said Mark Gordon, deputy-director general in the directorate of chemical and waste management in the Department of Environmental Affairs at the recent WasteCon industry conference. Several factors are emboldening the government to take steps to shake things up: landfills are filling up fast, waste is seen as a resource, and opportunities opening up in the ‘circular economy’ address the crying need for jobs.

“There will be a quadrupling of waste by 2030 from the growth of the middle class”, said Gordon, creating a picture of overworked municipalities trying desperately to maintain waste services by continuing to dump waste into already overburdened landfills, a vision which is clearly untenable.

“Waste and pollution is a market failure”, continued Gordon in his address at the conference. This not only pointed to the tendency of our present linear economy to externalise its environmental costs, but also to open the way for government to use the provisions of the new legislation to, as he put it “commoditise waste” by means of various fiscal and institutional measures.

The thinking appears to be that by valuing waste and putting a price on it, government will be able to divert waste from landfill, increase the throughput of volumes of waste into the recycling economy while creating jobs aplenty.

A bold triple-play by a far-sighted department? Maybe, but what are the instruments by which this is hoped to be achieved, and which are causing consternation amongst the present status quo and its stakeholders in both municipalities and industry?

Waste Pricing Strategy 

Firstly, it is developing a Waste Pricing Strategy which the CSIR has been commissioned to undertake. This draws from international research and practice and presents a range of fiscal options with which the government is now empowered to “catalyse the waste economy,” as Gordon puts it.

These could include fees, incentives, taxes, levies, deposit schemes and the like, which would generate significant revenue. The aim is to increase the value of waste as a resource and to generate a flow of revenue into the treasury that can be pooled and redirected through a new departmental Waste Bureau to deserving projects and programmes that stimulate the waste and recycling economy, divert waste from landfill and create jobs at the same time.

Despite pleas to ring-fence the incoming revenue through fiscal measures and so avoid a repeat of the ill-fated Buyisa-e-bag project, the department is bound by stipulations that any funds arising from taxes must go through Treasury, as it maintains it has the power and is best suited to administer them. Other fiscal means to accumulate funds such as levies, deposit schemes etc are not however required to go through Treasury.

Private and public sector entities seeking to apply for funds collected must first draw up business plans outlining inter alia how much they want, how they will stimulate the recycling economy and how many jobs will be created in the process.

New Waste Bureau

The new Waste Bureau is being set to be operational by April next year which will manage the application process and present funding plans to Treasury which will have final say over who gets what.

Other provisions and possibilities have the recycling and waste management industry, especially the packaging sector worried. The various plastic, paper, metal, glass recycling organisations, funded by their producer companies, have grown in effectiveness to be partly responsible for South Africa ranking high amongst other countries in seeing that their respective materials are recovered and re-used.

EPR looming large

Extended Producer Responsibility(“EPR”), a concept widely accepted by the producers, is looming large in the new government plans as a stick to pressure them to increase recycling diversion from landfill, with the carrot of providing possible funding (on its terms) with which to do so.

The concern is that the government might cause, inadvertently or otherwise, the demise of these long standing organisations who are directly or indirectly are enabling the employment of some 100 000 people, many of them at the lowest and neediest levels of our society.

Waste Management Council

Also in the department’s plan is a new Waste Management Council seen as a public-private cross-sector stakeholder body to advise and guide the direction of the waste recycling industry into a brighter, less wasteful and more prosperous future.

Hopefully it will be sufficiently representative to include experienced industry stakeholders who have a deep understanding of how the recycling business works in practice.

The department is holding a Waste Summit in March next year to bring industry and government together to debate issues and help smooth what otherwise may be a rocky road ahead.


by Hugh Tyrrell

First published in