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.



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.