Soon, the city of Joburg will be sinking in its own rubbish
While walking through Johannesburg’s CBD, it is difficult to ignore the amount of rubbish that coats the inner city’s streets. Bree Street, which was recently hit by a gas explosion, is now filled with some of the waste that is carried throughout the city and blown around by the wind, into the raptured road.
However, a more pressing issue lies hidden within Johannesburg’s landfills, which are meant to accommodate the continuously increasing piles of waste from the streets and illegal dumping grounds.
The current operating landfills in Johannesburg, namely: Goudkoppies Landfill Site, Marie Louis Landfill Site, Genesis Landfill Site, and Robinson Deep Landfill Site, are running out of space to dispose of waste rapidly produced by the increasing population of residents living in Johannesburg.
A report, compiled by, Kobus Otto & Associates Waste Management Consultants, a professional civil engineering organisation with extensive experience in waste management, titled Current Status of Landfill Airspace in Gauteng, which is affiliated with the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA), states that these landfills have less than five years before they close.
According to the DA’s Shadow MMC of Public Safety, Michael Sun, who spoke to SowetanLive during his time as the MMC for Environment and Infrastructure Services, said, “There is a critical need for waste reduction in that the city’s existing landfills are running out of airspace at a very fast rate.” This could mean that the current operating landfills in Johannesburg are close to exceeding the benchmark of their airspace capacity.
Situated in industrial peripheries of Turffontein is the Robinsons Deep Landfill Site. It is the largest and oldest landfill in the city and has been in operation since 1933.
As you arrive at Robinson Landfill, the first thing that strikes you is the sight of the towering mountains, but instead of its natural greenery, they are composed of an overwhelming amount of waste.
Going further up the mountain, the waste thickens. Piles upon piles of discarded items strewn about, accompanied by an overwhelming and repulsive stench that will assault your senses – with waste pickers actively searching for anything valuable – be it plastic, glass or cardboard for recycling.
You will find a variety of waste such Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): This is the most common type of domestic waste and includes everyday items like food scraps, packaging materials, newspapers, clothing, plastics, glass, paper products, and other common household materials.
Organic waste, such as food waste, garden waste (including leaves, branches, and grass clippings), and other biodegradable materials, is also commonly deposited in landfills.
Building rubble (concrete from demolished structures, including foundations, walls, bricks and pavement), and other hazardous materials like cleaning chemicals, pesticides, batteries, and electronic waste is found in the landfill too.
All of this waste is combined without proper sorting, forming unorganized piles. Large trucks queue up one after the other, from as early as 09:00 to as late as 20:00, to deposit this waste in the landfill. This is a daily on-going process and without massive effective recycling methods, the waste will continue to pile up.
Wits Vuvuzela interviewed Donald Radingoana, the general manager for landfill operations at Pikitup who said, “what determines the lifespan of a landfill is the capacity [airspace]. Every now and then, the surveyor comes and surveys the stockpile [of waste]” to determine the height of the pile. According to their license which determines the capacity, Radingoana said that the total capacity of the landfill is 25 000 000m3, and Robinsons has occupied 24 000 000m3 which leaves the landfill with only 1 000 000m3 remaining, and this airspace can keep them operating for four years.
Waste management entity
Pikitup, a subsidiary of the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), serves as the primary waste management service provider within the CoJ. Its core responsibilities encompass the collection and disposal of household waste, carried out through the operation of four distinct landfills across Johannesburg. On a weekly basis, Pikitup delivers waste management services to 1.4 million formal households and 260 informal settlements in Johannesburg.
Pikitup has two primary objectives. The first objective is to achieve “Zero waste to landfills by 2022,” aligning with the global best practice standard, which stipulates that only 10% of the waste stream should be disposed of in landfills”.
The second key objective of Pikitup is to promote recycling. Recycling is essential in the reduction of the amount of waste sent to landfills and extracting maximum value from the waste stream.
Unfortunately, Pikitup has not been able to meet its own objectives in the reduction of waste sent to the landfills. Currently, only 13% of the waste in Johannesburg undergoes recycling, indicating that the combined efforts of all landfills result in recycling less waste than they generate.
How much waste does the city produce?
The volume of waste generated by the residents of the city has increased significantly. With an increasing monthly population of 3000-5000 people every month, according to Sun in an interview with the Daily Maverick, more waste is yet to be generated. This means that as more people come into the city, the consumption of products and use of resources increases, thus, more waste is generated into the city.
The Association for Water and Rural Development, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing research-driven, multidisciplinary projects and addresses issues of sustainability, conducted a study in 2019. It found that, “every single person (in South Africa) generates up to 2,5 kilograms of waste per day, depending on his or her level of income.” The CoJ collects approximately 6000 tonnes of waste every single day.
This tells us that increased waste production can lead to environmental issues, such as land and water pollution, if waste is not managed properly. It can also pose health risks, as improper disposal and open dumping can lead to the spread of diseases and contamination of air and water sources. Extensive waste generation can also result in increased economic costs for waste collection and disposal.
The New York State Department of Health states that, “Landfill gas contains many different gases. Methane and carbon dioxide makes up 90 to 98% of landfill gas. The remaining 2 to 10% includes nitrogen, oxygen, ammonia, sulfides, hydrogen and various other gases. Landfill gases are produced when bacteria break down organic waste.”
Simply put, high greenhouse gas emissions signify an increased release of gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. This amplifies the carbon footprint, as it measures one’s environmental impact in terms of emissions. A high carbon footprint indicates greater environmental harm, requiring urgent reduction efforts for sustainability.
According to Pikitup, the city produces over 1.4 million tons of waste per year, and this excludes illegal dumping.
Radingoana said that there are no machines for processing domestic waste, but only crushers, which is the equipment used to recycle builders’ rubble. Which means that the majority of the food scraps go to the landfill. When a landfill contains higher amounts of organic waste, it results in increased production of landfill gases.
The landfill (Robinsons Deep) depends on private recycling companies, which recycle waste. These companies select the waste they want and handle the sorting themselves. Any waste they reject is transported back to the landfill site by Pikitup trucks.
Licensing a new landfill
Securing a new landfill site is a process that requires extensive regulation and. Radingoana said, “the process of applying for a permit takes plus-minus two years.” He told Wits Vuvuzela that Robinson Deep bought land next to it, to extend the life of the existing landfill to avoid applying for decommissioning. He said that they have started the process of applying for a permit for the new site because getting a permit after decommissioning is not easy and are doing this before they reach the capacity of 25 000 000m3.
He says the reason why it takes two years is because they must do environmental studies such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), geological studies, biodiversity studies, hydrological studies and consent from the neigbouring communities.
“Spokesperson of Pikitup, Muzi Mkhwanazu said, “Pikitup and the City are involved in discussion for the purchase of land for future airspace. Phase 1 of the Feasibility studies is completed. The site identified is suitable for landfilling and the discussions with the City [of Joburg] for the release of land has been favourably concluded.”
The construction of a landfill itself is another process altogether. Radingoana claims that the cost of constructing a new site with a lifespan of over 20 years (such as Robinson Deep) is R200 million and can take more than five years for it to start operating.
The aim is to ensure that the new land is secured and ready for the expansion of the existing landfill before Robinson Deep runs out of airspace to avoid being non-compliant, and spaceless for additional waste.
License compliance: Waste Pickers at the landfill
Siyabonga Zungu, a frequent waste picker at Robinson Deep said, “I come here almost every day, this is how I make a living.” He said that he stays at the community of Booysen (which is next to the landfill) with his girlfriend whom he met two years ago and is also waste picker. He told Wits Vuvuzela that he has been a waste reclaimer for six years now and moves around in various dumps to collect waste and take it to entities that are looking for recyclables. He said that he has been reclaiming waste at Robinson for two years and six months.
“It very dangerous to do this kind of work, sometimes fights would start randomly because people steal other people’s waste here inside the landfill then things would just get out of hand.” He told Wits Vuvuzela that his family in Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) where he comes from does not know that he is a waste picker. He told them that he is an entrepreneur that sells electrical equipment like earphones and phone chargers.
The National Environmental Management: Waste Act of 2008 is responsible for ensuring and regulating that the national standards of waste management such as licensing, contaminated land restoration, waste information systems, compliance and enforcement are well reinforced.
This means that landfill owners have to secure a waste management license in order to fully function with well-managed facilities, strict monitoring and a properly engineered site.
According to Radingoana, “The waste pickers are there [at Robinsons Deep] illegally; in terms of our license, they are not supposed to be there.”
The Minimum Requirements for Waste Disposal by Landfill, Second Edition 1998, issued by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, discourages waste reclamation at landfill sites. If a license holder chooses to permit controlled reclamation at a general waste disposal site, they must request permission either when applying for their waste management license or by amending an existing permit/license.
The operation of landfills involves various expenses related to construction, operation, maintenance, compliance, and long-term care.
Financial resources are essential to ensure that landfills function safely, environmentally responsibly, and in accordance with regulations. Radiongoana said that the City budgets R100 million for the four operating landfills in total, which means that Robinson receives R25 million every year, and “is not enough” to effectively ensure that all the operations run smoothly.
Homes at the community of Booysen built from old planks, paper, plastic and sail covers. Photo by: Ayanda Mgwenya The houses at the community of Booysen not far from the Robinsons landfill. Photo by: Ayanda Mgwenya The community comprises immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi and Zambia. The community also houses immigrants who come from different parts of the country. Photo by: Ayanda Mgwenya
Radingoana said that he is currently in the process of refurbishing a structure at Robinsons Deep which he calls Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where the sorting of waste will take place. He said, “any truck that goes into the landfill, must first go dump waste at MRF where the sorting will be done in order to recover raw material.” He said anything that will not be unrecyclable or non-material will go to landfill site to be buried.
The law stipulates that a landfill has to be 500 kilometers away from the residents. However, as the city develops, more people come into the city, some moving towards the outskirts of the city and reaching even the industrialised areas of the city which were not initially intended for communities.
Johannesburg faces a looming landfill crisis, with existing sites nearing capacity. Despite efforts by Pikitup and regulations in place, waste generation outpaces recycling. The city urgently needs new landfill space, highlighting the complex challenges of waste management in a rapidly growing urban landscape.
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