Month: November 2005

Your solution is not my solution: The Bisarsar landfill, incineration, transfer stations and the left in the slums:

“We are recycling not only to protect the environment but for economic reasons as well. Disposal is simply too costly and too dangerous. The challenge is to redirect the flow of raw materials going to landfill into strengthening our declining local economies. The solution to pollution is self-reliant cities and counties.”
Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Waste resource recovery has grown out of decades of grassroots efforts to promote community-based recycling as an increased sustainable environmentally sound waste disposal option compared to incinerators and landfills. Zero Waste is a guiding principle that says that waste is not natural and can be eliminated with proper design, policy and advocacy efforts (Citizens agenda for Zero Waste, 2005). Many municipalities have landfill sites that have limited life and are planning either new dump sites, incinerators, transfer stations or carbon trading schemes, all at great cost, but none will achieve the 2001 Polokwane declaration waste reduction goal off “Zero Waste” by 2022.

Many valuable products and materials disposed into landfills are not fully recovered and put back into the human economy but are lost. The Bisarsar landfill like many landfills has a history of poor operation, which includes toxic leachate leaks, bad smells containing toxic particulates, gas explosions, and onsite fires, as has happened on numerous occasions at the New England Landfill site in Pietermaritzburg this year. These are unacceptable practices and the community and ‘recyclers’ have been at risk for far too long at the expense of profits by industry.

The recent peaceful marches by shack dwellers living between Bisarsar and Kennedy road, who have been seeking an existence under extremely horrific conditions is an indication of the poverty and frustrations of the informal settlements who have survived to some extent from “scavenging” off the dump. The current Bisarsar landfill like many landfills is dangerous for ‘recyclers’ since it is not a structured operation with clear safety procedures and processes. It is operated in a haphazard manner with recyclers, waste and machinery commingled in confusion with no clear guidelines. The operation of dangerous equipment such as compactors at Bisarsar is risky for recyclers and a recycler from the informal settlement has already been compacted in the past.

Ethekweni Municipality: Waste Transfer Station
This year the Ethekweni Municipality proposed to set up a Waste Transfer Station (WTS) at Electron Road, 1km from the Bisarsar landfill site. The waste transfer station would be a collection point for waste and would simply entail compaction and containerization of waste prior to bulk transport to Buffelsdraai landfill site. The proposed facility would have no safety design for inclusion off recyclers in the process and for the extraction of re-useable materials. On attending public meetings held by the city, it has been clear that the city is embarking on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) without exploring all of the alternatives that would be of benefit to the local community as well as conserving natural resources. Exploration of all alternatives is a requirement of the EIA procedure.

However, in addition to setting up a WTS, the city is also trying to keep the current Bisarsar site open due to the municipality’s partnership with the World Bank (WB) to generate electricity by burning methane from the dump. This is despite a campaign by some community members to close down the landfill site. It is interesting to note that the WB plans to set up a similar project at the New England landfill site. On attending some of the New England landfill site monitoring committee meeting’s it has not been surprising to note that majority of the committee members did not know of the project, showing the deviousness of the WB to communicate with high-level officials and exclude grassroots levels.

Understandably, the informal dwellers at Bisarsar being part of the community are opposed to the landfill closing down since they seek an existence from it. The city has taken this opportunity to strategically divide the community and have been using the informal settlement residents to fight to keep the landfill site open by saying that the landfill site creates jobs and livelihoods. While it does, it does so in a relaxed and casual manner. The few jobs created are not long term and have no future security for the recyclers and their families.

The fight to close the Bisarsar landfill site is not a “green” issue, but rather a justice issue since the constitutional rights of the people have been ignored. The questions remain however, what will happen to the Kennedy residents and other informal dwellers if the landfill had to close? The solution is that it is important that the informal dwellers such as the Kennedy residents be employed at a formal facility, where the city formally employs them and residents enjoy all the benefits entitled to them. What the city would like to do is to keep the Kennedy residents off the city’s payroll and outsource this process or privatise it. Privatisation would not allow money to remain within the community and will ensure that the community is marginalised since private companies employ casual labour without any benefits.

The solution: Resource Recovery Facility
One of the sustainable options strategically not explored by the city has been that of a Resource Recovery Facility (RRF). groundWork has been working with the informal dwellers (Kennedy residents) to help push at meetings for a formal RRF with formal jobs in the area. A RRF, as opposed to a waste transfer station, offers a solution to waste that involves neither incineration nor a large reliance on landfills. Resource recovery seeks to redesign the way resources and materials flow through society taking a ‘whole system’ approach. It is both an ‘end of pipe’ solution that maximises recycling and waste minimisation and a design principle which ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into the marketplace or nature. A RRF owned by the community will create opportunities for increased civic participation and sustainable employment.

Benefits of a RRF for the community
• Communities become part of the regional solution to waste management – a Regional solution which includes well-established programs for reduction, recycling, reuse and even composting and building material recycling.
• Resource conservation – There’s growing understanding of the need to conserve natural resources and to protect land, water and air from the impacts of waste. Communities are demonstrating that they want to be involved and that they can make a huge contribution to resource conservation if given the opportunity and the right infrastructure
• Destruction of natural resources – landfills destroy vast quantities of valuable reusable resources and as such are not sustainable. With a RRF communities would be able to recover and utilise the full value of natural resources and full utility of products and materials that would otherwise be lost in a landfill.
• Community safety – landfills are not safe for recyclers since it is done informally resulting in worker deaths and injuries as mentioned. The community, therefore, has the greatest vested interest in safety and the incentive to push the city to create a safer resource management system operated in a structured manner.
• Job creation – RRF offer job creation for community members through waste recovery and collection. Waste recovery, in turn, helps to reduce waste disposal costs, environmental impacts and possibly the costs of importing new materials into the community.
• Recycling market – RRF would combine recyclable materials drop-off and would enable the products and materials to be stored and displayed to possibly create markets for buyers and sellers and increase revenue for the community.
• Cleaner production – Principles of cleaner production to possibly extend outside the RRF into society as a whole and possibly taking into account a life cycle approach supported by the principles of Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR).

Case Study
Many communities around the world such as in the United States, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United Kingdom have pushed for RRFs in place of traditional waste transfer stations to the benefit of the community. A RRF was set up for the residents in Berkeley California a few years ago. The RRF currently employs about 25 people who sort, bale and prepare the recovered material for various mills or export. The RRF also purchases material from the community, which is an additional economic benefit. The collection program further employs 15 people.

Conclusion
Finally, it must be the responsibility of the city to design and construct a RRF together with full community participation and input into the process if this is to be successful. The design should be well organised and structured to include, a setback area with appropriate screening, conveyor belts, storage capacity for incoming waste, quality control of recovered material, tipping floors, sorting pads, solid waste storage areas, an enclosed unloading area, adequate floor drains, surface water and erosion control. If communities are included in decision-making processes and their contributions are not undermined, the government can ensure that statements made in the past such as “The ANC will together with our people address the concerns of the poorest of the poor living in squatter camps like Kennedy Road, Lusaka and Mbambayi.” (ANC KwaZulu-Natal Victory Statement, Durban 1999) are realised and this will instil confidence in community perceptions around delivery by the government such as job creation. It is hoped that profits are not put before people and that the city finds solutions to waste management that is of community interest – or else we will be seeing much more marches against an incompetent government.

Dawdling actions and government: Mercury, human health and the environment

“I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defence abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?”
Robert Redford

No superintendent of a hospital or manager of an industrial operation wants to be subjected to massive pressure from communities and the media linking their processes to health effects and contamination of the environment from toxins such as mercury. However, the last few decades has seen pressure sustained by communities globally, linking many industrial processes and medical waste incinerations to resulting deaths from mercury contamination linked to damaged brain cells, lung failure and birth defects. It is a fact that as long as industries and polluting technologies continue to be placed in communities, poisonous toxins such as mercury will continue to be released into the environment posing harmful effects. The impacts are born by people, usually the poor, and the hidden costs like health care are passed onto the public.

South African civil society has long been calling on the government to properly monitor and regulate industrial activities and implement cleaner systems for production. I have been disappointed to hear of processes in South Africa both proposed and past that continues to affect human health and the environment through mercury pollution.

New Castle incinerator
It has been disappointing to hear of a proposal by Iscor to establish a medical waste incinerator in Newcastle. This is despite the fact that our KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health in 2002 took a policy decision to phase out incineration at its government institutions and is a party to the Stockholm Convention that targets mercury for phase out as one of the “dirty dozen”.

Many hospitals have on-site incinerators and incinerate waste, which contains mercury at “no cost”; therefore sometimes there is no incentive to rigidly segregate waste.

The problem of health care waste and mercury is a contentious one since firstly no segregation of waste is being carried out at hospitals and mercury is disposed of together with the health care waste. According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one in 10 women in the U.S. already carry enough mercury in their blood to pose a threat of neurological damage to the foetus. The U.S. EPA ranks the health care sector as the fourth-largest source of mercury air emissions due to their contribution to medical waste incinerators.

Thor Chemicals
It has been over a decade now since the Thor Chemicals plant in Cato Ridge was shut down by the government after numerous workers in 1994 were found to have contracted mercury poisoning and two had subsequently died.

So far, the government has contracted the services of specialist waste consulting engineers who will design and oversee all the cleanup activities at Thor on behalf of the department. The engineers have already started preliminary work on the site, which includes an investigation into exactly what is there, i.e. they are preparing a detailed inventory of the stored waste. This is being done with a view to proposing the best way of dealing with the waste. An environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is under way.

What has been disappointing has been that it has taken government such a long time to take action on this issue. The Wheels of justice with regard to holding Thor accountable and protecting the health of people and the environment has been slow.

WHERE AIR POLLUTANTS COME FROM, ACCORDING TO INDUSTRY:

Mercury- From a series of secret space probes that were sent to planet Mercury by government administrations that have kicked up clouds of “mercury dust,” which have now drifted back to earth.

Thor Chemicals – incineration – national government and cement kilns

(While the government decides what to do with the waste, Summerton says the area around the closed reprocessing plant remains contaminated. He blames the ministry of the environment for not trying to find out from workers where waste was buried so that it can be cleaned up. )
– The government is dragging its feet while it should be asking workers where the mercury waste was dumped,” says Summerton. “When is the government going to do something about this?”

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Fact Sheet: Mercury and safe disposal practices

What is Mercury?
Mercury is a silver-white liquid metal that occurs naturally in small amounts in the environment. The symbol used to describe mercury is Hg. It can change easily from solid to liquid to gas, allowing it to circulate in the atmosphere and the environment. Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulphur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or “salts,” which are usually white powders or crystals. Mercury also combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. The most common one, methylmercury, is produced mainly by microscopic organisms in the water and soil. More mercury in the environment can increase the amounts of methylmercury that these small organisms make.
Where can Mercury be found?

Because Mercury remains liquid at room temperature, it is used in many consumer products. It can be found in hospitals and homes and is used in barometers, blood pressure instruments, thermometers, and other pressure sensing instruments. Batteries containing mercury are used in some small electronic devices like watches and children’s toys. Mining sites, Power plants, incinerators and some industries release mercury into the environment causing air and water pollution. Dental amalgam tooth fillings are also a source of mercury exposure. Metallic mercury is used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda. Mercury salts are sometimes used in skin lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments.

What happens to mercury when it enters the environment?
• Inorganic mercury (metallic mercury and inorganic mercury compounds) enters the air from mining ore deposits, burning coal and waste, and from manufacturing plants.
• It enters the water or soil from natural deposits, disposal of wastes, and volcanic activity.
• Methyl-mercury may be formed in water and soil by small organisms called bacteria.
• Methyl-mercury builds up in the tissues of fish. Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.

How can you be exposed to Mercury?
Mercury exposure can occur by breathing vapours, by direct skin contact or by eating food such as fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury and by drinking water contaminated with mercury. Mercury vapours are readily absorbed by the lungs as a result of exposure to breathing vapours in air from spills, incinerators, and industries that burn mercury-containing fuels. Mercury can enter the body through the skin, especially a wound or cut.

What are health problems associated with exposure to Mercury?
Health problems caused by Mercury depend on the amount that has entered your body, how it entered your body, how long you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to it. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapours are more harmful than other forms because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing the fetus. Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.

Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapours may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation
Children are more susceptible to mercury poisoning than adults because their brains are not yet fully developed. Exposure to small amounts of mercury over a long period of time may cause negative health effects. These include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs. The foetus of pregnant women can also be damaged.

The symptoms of mercury include
• Impairment of vision
• Disturbances in sensations (prickling feeling, numbness) usually in the hands and feet and sometimes around the mouth
• Lack of co-ordination of movements such as writing
• Impairment of speech, hearing and walking
• Muscle weakness
• Skin rashes
• Mood swings
• Memory loss and mental disturbances

Mercury poisoning accidents
On March 2001, residents of a Vancouver apartment block were evacuated from their suites after mercury poisoning killed one of their neighbours. The cleanup crew found mercury in a dentist apartment from which mercury vapours had wound their way up plumbing and ventilation shafts to the top floor of their three storey building.

In 1996, a United States cancer researcher spilt mercury on her hand. The compound soaked through her rubber glove and into her skin. A few months later, she began losing her balance and having trouble speaking and hearing. Ten months after the accident she was dead.

In June 2001, Dewey police had found the mercury that had contaminated an apartments carpet had left a child in critical condition. The 23-month-old toddler suffered from poisoning because she crawled and played on the contaminated carpet and breathed the fumes.

In 1993, the British-owned company Thor Chemicals, the world’s biggest mercury recovery plant situated in Cato Ridge, Natal, appeared before a magistrate court on charges of “culpable homicide”. They were charged in British courts with the murder of three employees who had died from mercury poisoning.
In 1982, a suit was filed in the Japanese Supreme Court against chemical maker Chisso Corp for pouring tonnes of mercury compounds since the 1930s into Japan’s Minamata Bay. Since the early 1950s, hundreds of Japanese from the Minamata Bay area have died after eating mercury-tainted fish. Others suffered spasms and blurred vision, and babies of poisoned mothers were born with gnarled limbs.

Other examples of mercury poisoning are the Iraqi poisoning events where wheat treated with a seed dressing containing organic mercury compounds were used for bread. Also, new research has shown that methylmercury can be released directly from municipal waste landfills (Lindberg et al, 2001) and sewage treatment plants (Sommar et al, 1999).

How can you prevent mercury spills and exposure to mercury?
Mercury-containing products should be replaced with safer alternatives such as electronic devices. Mercury containing items such as fluorescent bulbs and old electronic switches should be recycled instead of thrown into the household trash.

Carefully handle and dispose of products that contain mercury, such as thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs. Do not vacuum up spilt mercury, because it will vaporise and increase exposure. If a large amount of mercury has been spilt, contact your health department. Teach children not to play with shiny, silver liquids. Properly dispose of older medicines that contain mercury. Keep all mercury-containing medicines away from children. Pregnant women and children should keep away from rooms where liquid mercury has been used. Learn about wildlife and fish advisories in your area from your public health or natural resources department

Your solution is not my solution: The Bisarsar landfill, incineration, transfer stations and the left in the slums

 “We are recycling not only to protect the environment, but for economic reasons as well. Disposal is simply too costly and too dangerous. The challenge is to redirect the flow of raw materials going to landfill into strengthening our declining local economies. The solution to pollution is self-reliant cities and counties.”

Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Waste resource recovery has grown out of decades of grassroots efforts to promote community-based recycling as an increased sustainable environmentally sound waste disposal option compared to incinerators and landfills. Zero Waste is a guiding principle that says that waste is not natural and can be eliminated with proper design, policy and advocacy efforts (Citizens agenda for Zero Waste, 2005). Many municipalities have landfill sites that have limited life and are planning either new dump sites, incinerators, transfer stations or carbon trading schemes, all at great cost, but none will achieve the 2001 Polokwane declaration waste reduction goal off “Zero Waste” by 2022.

 

Many valuable products and materials disposed into landfills are not fully recovered and put back into the human economy but are lost. The Bisarsar landfill like many landfills has a history of poor operation, which includes toxic leachate leaks, bad smells containing toxic particulates, gas explosions, and onsite fires, as has happened on numerous occasions at the New England Landfill site in Pietermaritzburg this year. These are unacceptable practices and the community and ‘recyclers’ have been at risk for far too long at the expense of profits by industry.

 

The recent peaceful marches by shack dwellers living between Bisarsar and Kennedy road, who have been seeking an existence under extremely horrific conditions is an indication of the poverty and frustrations of the informal settlements who have survived to some extent from “scavenging” off the dump. The current Bisarsar landfill like many landfills are dangerous for ‘recyclers’ since it is not a structured operation with clear safety procedures and processes. It is operated in a haphazard manner with recyclers, waste and machinery commingled in confusion with no clear guidelines. The operation of dangerous equipment such as compactors at Bisarsar is risky for recyclers and a recycler from the informal settlement has already been compacted in the past.

 

Ethekweni Municipality: Waste Transfer Station

This year the Ethekweni Municipality proposed to set up a Waste Transfer Station (WTS) at Electron Road, 1km from the Bisarsar landfill site. The waste transfer station would be a collection point for waste and would simply entail compaction and containerization of waste prior to bulk transport to Buffelsdraai landfill site. The proposed facility would have no safety design for inclusion off recyclers in the process and for the extraction of re-useable materials. On attending public meetings held by the city, it has been clear that the city is embarking on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) without exploring all of the alternatives that would be of benefit to the local community as well as conserving natural resources. Exploration of all alternatives is a requirement off the EIA procedure.

 

However, in addition to setting up a WTS, the city is also trying to keep the current Bisarsar site open due to the municipality’s partnership with the World Bank (WB) to generate electricity by burning methane from the dump. This is despite a campaign by some community members to close down the landfill site. It is interesting to note that the WB plans to set up a similar project at the New England landfill site. On attending some of the New England landfill site monitoring committee meeting’s it has not been surprising to note that majority of the committee members did not know off the project, showing the deviousness of the WB to communicate with high level officials and exclude grassroot levels.

 

Understandably, the informal dwellers at Bisarsar being part of the community are opposed to the landfill closing down since they seek an existence from it. The city has taken this opportunity to strategically divide the community and have been using the informal settlement residents to fight to keep the landfill site open by saying that the landfill site creates jobs and livelihoods.  While it does, it does so in a relaxed and casual manner. The few jobs created are not long term and have no future security for the recyclers and their families.

 

The fight to close the Bisarsar landfill site is not a “green” issue, but rather a justice issue since the constitutional rights of the people have been ignored. The questions remains however, what will happen to the Kennedy residents and other informal dwellers if the landfill had to close? The solution is that it is important that the informal dwellers such as the Kennedy residents be employed at a formal facility, where the city formally employs them and residents enjoy all the benefits entitled to them. What the city would like to do is to keep the Kennedy residents off the city’s pay roll and outsource this process or privatise it. Privatisation would not allow money to remain within the community and will ensure that the community is marginalized since private companies employ casual labour without any benefits.

 

The solution: Resource Recovery Facility

One of the sustainable options strategically not explored by the city has been that of a Resource Recovery Facility (RRF). groundWork has been working with the informal dwellers (Kennedy residents) to help push at meetings for a formal RRF with formal jobs in the area. A RRF as opposed to a waste transfer station offers a solution to waste that involves neither incineration nor a large reliance on landfills. Resource recovery seeks to redesign the way resources and materials flow through society taking a ‘whole system’ approach. It is both an ‘end of pipe’ solution that maximises recycling and waste minimisation and a design principle which ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into the marketplace or nature. A RRF owned by the community will create opportunities for increased civic participation, and sustainable employment.

 

Benefits of a RRF for the community

  • Communities become part of regional solution to waste managementRegional solution which includes well established programs for reduction, recycling, reuse and even composting and building material recycling.
  • Resource conservationThere’s growing understanding of the need to conserve natural resources and to protect land, water and air from the impacts of waste. Communities are demonstrating that they want to be involved and that they can make a huge contribution to resource conservation if given the opportunity and the right infrastructure
  • Destruction of natural resources – landfills destroy vast quantities of valuable reusable resources and as such are not sustainable. With a RRF communities would be able to recover and utilize the full value of natural resources and full utility of products and materials that would otherwise be lost in a landfill.
  • Community safety – landfills are not safe for recyclers since it is done informally resulting in worker deaths and injuries as mentioned. The community therefore has the greatest vested interest in safety and the incentive to push the city to create a safer resource management system operated in a structured manner.
  • Job creation – RRF offer job creation for community members through waste recovery and collection. Waste recovery in turn helps to reduce waste disposal costs, environmental impacts and possibly the costs of importing new materials into the community.
  • Recycling market – RRF would combine recyclable materials drop-off and would enable the products and materials to be stored and displayed to possibly create markets for buyers and sellers and increase revenue for the community.
  • Cleaner production – Principles of cleaner production to possibly extend outside the RRF into society as a whole and possibly taking into account a life cycle approach supported by the principles of Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR).

 

Case Study

Many communities around the world such as in the United States, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United Kingdom have pushed for RRFs in place of traditional waste transfer stations to the benefit of the community. A RRF was set up for the residents in Berkeley California a few years ago. The RRF currently employs about 25 people who sort, bale and prepare the recovered material for various mills or export. The RRF also purchases material from the community, which is an additional economic benefit. The collection program further employs 15 people.

 

Conclusion

Finally, it must be the responsibility of the city to design and construct a RRF together with full community participation and input into the process if this is to be successful. The design should be well organized and structured to include, a setback area with appropriate screening, conveyor belts, storage capacity for incoming waste, quality control of recovered material, tipping floors, sorting pads, solid waste storage areas, an enclosed unloading area, adequate floor drains, surface water and erosion control. If communities are included in decision making processes and their contributions are not undermined, government can ensure that statements made in the past such as “The ANC will together with our people address the concerns of the poorest of the poor living in squatter camps like Kennedy Road, Lusaka and Mbambayi.” (ANC KwaZulu-Natal Victory Statement, Durban 1999) are realized and this will instil confidence in community perceptions around delivery by government such as job creation. It is hoped that profits are not put before people and that the city finds solutions to waste management that are of community interest – or else we will be seeing many more marches against an incompetent government.