The City of Cape Town’s (City) most recent integrated waste management draft plan announces some ambitious and commendable goals for shifting towards a more efficient and sustainable system of managing the city’s material flows. Unfortunately, the strategies meant to implement these goals appear to lack substance or detail, and the proposed allocation of financial resources disproportionately favors status quo processes rather than supporting new needs. To achieve success in shifting Cape Town’s relationship with waste, the City must advance and support new approaches and partnerships that stand the best chance of executing the City’s vision.
From Waste to Reuse, the City’s Waste Plan Envisions an Ambitious, and Much Needed, Shift
The draft plan envisions re-orienting municipal waste management by diverting as much solid waste as possible as close to the source of its generation as possible, with particular focus on organic materials and packaging. The idea is to reduce the energy, space, and capital needed to handle waste under the current system, and to reinsert “waste” materials into processes where they can be transformed back into useful and valuable resources. This effort is driven by overburdened landfills and the recognition that avoiding the generation of waste is beneficial ecologically and economically.
The focus on diverting organic and packaging materials is sensible, since these types of materials make up a significant proportion of the overall waste stream and can be converted into valuable new products if properly handled and managed. Organic solid waste composed primarily of plant clippings and food scraps, which according to the draft plan make up 29% of current municipal solid waste flows by mass, is the elemental ingredient for producing compost. Compost in turn is a necessary and valuable input for farming, which grows the food we eat. Packaging is generally composed of materials such as paper and plastic that may be recycled into new products. The draft plan estimates that recyclables make up 35% of municipal solid waste streams. When organic matter and packaging end up sitting in landfills rather than being transformed and recirculated as productive materials, it constitutes a needless and costly loss of valuable material resources and a missed opportunity to promote efficiency and generate employment. In contrast, reuse of these resources can promote food and water security, energy and resources efficiency, and local job creation.
The draft plan’s goals for diverting resource streams from landfills reflect the type of forward thinking necessary to confront the environmental and economic challenges posed by waste management in the city. The draft plan’s strategic deliverables include adoption of the National Waste Management Strategy’s goal of 40% waste diversion from landfills by 2020, increasing to greater than 70% diversion by 2035. Additionally, the draft plan adopts the Provincial waste diversion targets of 50% diversion of organic waste from landfills by 2022 (i.e. next year), increasing to 100% diversion within the next five years. To put this in context, according to the draft plan statistics, the amount of garden greens that the City currently processes for composting constitutes roughly a mere one percent of the total volume of garbage headed to the landfill. These are ambitious targets that are fitting for the type of wholesale shift that is required to right-size the flow and management of urban materials and resources.
In conjunction with ambitious targets for waste reduction, the draft plan proposes to utilize both larger centralized waste facilities and smaller drop-off facilities to “maximise diverted organics and packaging waste,” as well as increase “collection at source” services through reliance on a combination of commercial contracts, business initiatives, entrepreneurs, trash pickers, and small, medium, and micro-enterprises. Building and adjusting Cape Town’s solid waste infrastructure to account for diversion closer to the source of their generation is common sense, and the distributed nature of waste production leads naturally to investment in facilities that are adjusted to meet local needs. Where individual households and businesses produce more waste than they can reasonably process themselves through household composting and reuse of packaging, the City should support connections with the many re-users and processors of such waste, including farmers, commercial composters, waste pickers, and packaging manufacturers.
A Vision Without a Plan
Unfortunately, while the goals of waste diversion are clearly stated, the strategies for implementing these plans are largely absent and poorly articulated where present. Although the draft plan provides for wide scale diversion of solid waste through recycling and composting at drop-off facilities, supported by small business participation, there is absolutely no detailed proposals for how these arrangements will be pursued or implemented.
In fact, the draft plan suggests that current largescale contractors will have both the incentive and capacity to “support and bring the benefits of economies of scale to small operators”. In essence, the draft plan assumes that it is in the interest of the city’s largescale contractors to move away from centralized waste disposal and towards a decentralized diversion model, when these large-scale contractors’ methods suggest the opposite.
The City’s plan for diversion of organic materials from waste streams meanwhile argues for “large scale clean organic waste treatment facilities” at existing large facilities, although the draft plan hopefully suggests that “it is anticipated that there will be strong market demand for clean organics that may obviate the need for [the City’s] developed facilities.” This sounds more like a hope and a dream than a plan for diverting organic materials from overtaxed landfills.
The budget numbers presented in the draft plan reflect that the City is doubling down on status quo solutions, rather than pursuing a shift in priorities. Capital operating expenses projected for the next five years appear to allocate twice as much money towards large facilities as they do small ones. Even more concerning, projected operating expenses linked to these capital expenses for large projects outspend operating expenses devoted to smaller facilities ten to one. One would expect these figures to be reversed if the stated priority of decentralization and waste diversion were to be achieved.
Small-scale facilities will need to be the workhorses of the city’s new resource management framework, and the budget should reflect that. Programs for diverting organic waste and packaging will likely require focusing on investing in partnerships and processes rather than capital projects.
Support for New Productive Relationships is Needed
Ultimately, the City needs to focus more on how it can generate, facilitate, and support the relationships and partnerships needed to execute on the City’s vision. A decentralized system will require development of networks that can work together to create the sort of cyclical processes that are desired. The City’s role will be critical in ensuring these connections are made through shepherding stakeholders and building relationships.
To provide one example of new potential productive relationship, organic materials diverted from landfills could go towards supplying compost for local farmers, which will support Cape Town’s fight against food insecurity and for urban resiliency. Support of small urban and peri-urban farms, which are located closer to urban residents and also provide new livelihood opportunities, are naturally situated to both contribute to and benefit from the City’s new vision for resource management. The compost needs of even a small one acre peri-urban farm are sizeable, requiring 20 cubic metres of compost per month, but securing commercial compost is costly. Costs obtaining adequate compost de-incentivizes farmers from switching to regenerative farming techniques, which produce better quality food. Reliance on locally produced compost also mitigates farming’s environmental and climate impact. Local small-scale farmers need the appropriate support to jumpstart this virtuous cycle.
Properly equipping drop-off facilities to handle organic matter in a manner that allows for composting, finding partners to manage this process at various facilities, and connecting these processes and facilities with local farmers can help eliminate waste and generate a valuable resource to boost local food production and local industry. This is the type of planning that needs to show through in the City’s waste management plan.
[Submitted as part of the public comment process to the City of Cape Town on behalf of the PHA Food and Farming Campaign.]