'Clean' waste incineration sparks anger
By Leon Marshall
As Naples continued to choke on its garbage this week, with landfill sites overflowing and the army being called in to help clear the mess on the streets after violent protests, a testy meeting in Pretoria demonstrated how South Africa's own mounting rubbish problem is beginning to rack nerves.
As in the Italian city, the key question is how to get rid of the ever-growing heaps of waste being produced by our growing population and rapid industrialisation.
Egmont Otterman, reflecting the exasperation and representing the Association of Cement Producers, warned the Pretoria meeting: "We dare not procrastinate. What is happening in Naples will happen here."
The meeting was called by the department of environmental affairs (Deat) to discuss the proposed incineration of hazardous waste, which is broadly classified as waste that is harmful to human health or the environment. It includes plastics, paint, pesticides, used oil and tyres. The proposal was that the materials should be passed on to cement factories where it could be used to fuel their kilns.
The solution seemed innovative and simple, but it turned out to be highly controversial. International experts contracted by Deat and representatives of the cement industry said the incineration process was one of complete combustion,[except for pm 10's and pm2.5's] which made it safe.
The ash was harmless and useful for mixing with cement. Although gas such as carbon dioxide was released, it would actually amount to a saving on the volumes produced, because otherwise coal would have to be burnt and the hazardous materials themselves would release greenhouse gases over time.
The experts told the meeting that it had been done for decades in Europe and in the United States where stringent safety standards were applied.
Incineration also had other benefits for cement factories. The materials, especially tyres, would save on the cost of coal. Iron, which can be obtained from burnt tyres, is a necessary additive to cement, thereby contributing another saving.
But several representatives of communities and non-governmental organisations who attended the meeting did not take kindly to the proposal. They feared that noxious substances would be emitted and that local communities, particularly the poor, would pay the price.
Past experience had much to do with their concern. A Tshwane councillor spoke of the many people in his ward who had been hospitalised with respiratory problems. Suspicions fell on the nearby cement factory.
Similar complaints came from a community representative from Lichtenburg in North West.
Others complained that waste sites were invariably placed near poor communities, which had to live with the filth and stench. "We all know," one representative said, "how these overfull and badly managed dumps catch alight and what toxic smoke gets sent into the air."
A Durban South spokesperson told the meeting about the high incidence of cancer and lung disease in his community and claimed that factory emissions and the illegal dumping of hazardous waste were to blame. He said that the incineration of waste would only add to the problem.
They wanted to know what guarantees there were that incineration would not add to their problems.
Non-governmental organisations warned that, even if safety standards were legally prescribed, the problem would be with monitoring and law enforcement.
"We have already seen how this has failed in the case of rivers, wetlands and such. For all the protective laws there are, they just keep getting destroyed. The trouble lies with the lack of enforcement," said Karen Marx of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.
Air pollution from industrial plants in general and the issue of incineration became the subject of such heated exchanges that Nolwazi Cobbinah, Deat's chief director in charge of pollution and waste management, had to intervene and added: "We are not fighting - we are here to find solutions."
But the meeting did not end on a good note for the NGOs and community representatives. They charged that the government was intent on going ahead with incineration without answering their concerns.
But the issue of waste goes much further. Besides being an environmental problem, it involves climate change and water security.
The government's attempts to devise a national strategy for dealing with the growing problem go back to 2002. The purpose has been to devise a plan that would include waste separation and recycling, as well as reductions in the production of waste. Incineration is another option, on which consultations have been taking place over the past year.
The tense meeting in the serene surrounds of the South African Biodiversity Institute in Pretoria was part of the consultation.
That there is a growing urgency about getting a national strategy and its supporting legislation in place was clear from Cobbinah's opening statement as chairman: "We are behind schedule. We should by now have had a policy document ready."
Underlying the NGOs' concerns about safety standards is the lack of information on the quantity and types of hazardous and other waste.
A Deat official explained that a waste information system had been set up to collect this data. But this itself became the subject of a chicken-and-egg argument. For the system to operate properly, the official said, data reporting had to be mandatory, which could only be done through enabling legislation.
The counterargument was that legislation to impose waste treatment through risky means such as incineration could not be legally enforced without proper information on the extent of the problem.
Jorn Lauridsen, an international expert from Denmark who is doing research on waste for the department, told the meeting that the most recent study done in 1997 showed that the country was producing 160 000 tons of hazardous organic waste a year.
His own research showed that a single waste-collecting company in Gauteng in 2006 handled 100 000 tons of such waste.
- This article was originally published on page 6 of The Sunday Independent on January 20, 2008
Published on the Web by IOL on 2008-01-20 08:34:00
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