Makhanda generates around 2.1kg of waste per person every day. Going by the last official population count that makes a staggering 172 326 kilograms a day, or 5 200 tons a month… close on 63 000 tons a year.
For years and years, most of that has ended up in the Cradock Road landfill – the hellhole that has come close to seeing Makana Municipality’s chief accounting officer and political head behind bars.
The municipal dump will never be heaven, but the good news for the town (and perhaps Makana’s Mayor and Municipal Manager) is that in just a few weeks, according to Mphele Engineers, it will be a very different place.
Together with subcontractors Separation at Source (S@S), Mphele is working with local recyclers and the town’s other residents to turn around the town’s waste trajectory and make it more sustainable.
In three years, if everything goes to plan, those 63 000 tons could be reduced to as little as 16 000 tons; everything that can be recycled will be back out in the world getting a second chance at being useful; and the Cradock Road landfill will be an efficiently run operation that generates income across the town, rather than smoke.
The key to this is recycling – S@S’s specialisation. While they await documentation to confirm their exact role, their operations at Makhanda’s landfill have already made a considerable impact.
When partners in the business Abri Albertyn and Victoria Warner first visited Makhanda’s landfill, they were horrified.
“It was hectic,” said Albertyn. “We’ve done projects all over South Africa and Africa and this was one of the worst we’d ever seen: not because of the rubbish – but because of the conditions.
“People were living there out in the open, there were animals everywhere and the security guards who were here then were no help and the fence that had been only recently put up was already damaged.
“There were zero systems, there was zero order,” Albertyn said. “We stood a while to see what happens when a car comes in: they weren’t signed in and there was no one directing them where to put their rubbish.
The reclaimers were running up to vehicles and jumping on to them to get first chance at offloading.
“It was a dangerous and volatile environment.”
In March 2020, with Makana Municipality under pressure from civic coalition the Makana Unity League to comply with Judge Jeremy Pickering’s 2015 order, S@S embarked on a two-month partnership with Mphele to bring order to the site.
A tender to manage the site was advertised late last year and on 1 February, Mphele were announced the successful bidder.
As waste engineers, they specialise in designing waste sites that comply with the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) and conduct compliance monitoring (including for methane levels, leachates (what goes into the soil) and correct compacting. Diverting stormwater from the site, and ensuring that contaminated stormwater from the site doesn’t go into the environment is an important aspect of their work.
“Our contract has thus far been very limited,” explained Mphele partner Abraham Masemola. “We are very anxious now to get full-time guards on site, and our machinery.”
This includes a weighbridge at the entrance to control volumes coming in, and a 32-ton waste compactor.
“Mphele director Marius Els said this would take some time because as an abnormal load, it would require a permit to transport it from Johannesburg.
High lighting at the site is also on the cards.
Subcontractors S@S are also anxious for the equipment to arrive.
“Mphele have the engineering and equipment capability; we have skills and knowledge of how to build a business model around waste, and the execution of a circular economy in the long term,” Albertyn said.
S@S is looking more broadly than the landfill, though.
“Over the next three years we have the opportunity to begin to opportunity to reverse-engineer into homes, where the waste starts,” Albertyn said. “So that when material arrives at the landfill, it’s already organised and so it’s easier to plug into various recycling streams.
“Currently a certain percentage is diverted, but the fact is that recyclables mixed with waste get thrown on to the back of the municipal truck. Straight away it’s compacted and so items like white paper and cardboard get contaminated and lose their value.
“Substantial quantities of recyclables are being wasted with the current system,” Albertyn said. “Separation at source means we can introduce a plug and play system.”
The operation already has storage and transport in place: the main challenge is to increase the percentage of recyclables that can be extracted in the best possible way to maintain their quality and value.
“Now that we’re looking at a proper budget, we can move into this next phase,” Albertyn said. This would include personal protective equipment for the reclaimers working at the site, among other things.
“All the projects we’ve done in South Africa and across the continent are context based. Even in Makhanda, there will be pockets of communities where different models will be required,” Albertyn said.
Mphele has been officially appointed to run the Makhanda landfill for the next three years. While a contract with S@S has yet to be finalised, Mphale Director Marius Els is positive about the partnership.
“S@S have substantial experience of educating communities in the value of waste recycling,” Els said.
Along with the principle of waste separation, it’s something Makhanda badly needs. Els cited a staggering 2.1kg of waste per person per day. If you multiply that by the last confirmed population figure for Makhanda (82 000 in 2016 according to Stats SA), it amounts to a mind-blowing 63 000 tons that this town throws away every year.
“Compare that to the average of 1.9g per person per day in Ekurhuleni. Makhanda is definitely one of the highest waste generators in the country,” Els said.
However, S@S CEO Victoria Warner emphasised that these were estimates.
“None of the stats have been verified, as we have not had a working weighbridge or necessary systems in place for the nine months we have been involved on site,” Warner said.
“The population stats for [Makhanda] are not verifiable due to the transient student population and economic downturn. But based on the aerial photographs and population growth rate per annum, an estimated population of between 82K and 87K would be justifiable,” said Warner.
“The figure provided per annum of 63 000 tons includes biomass, rubble, commercial and household waste: currently these are not weighed separately,” Warner said.
Based on the average waste picker’s processing 70kg a day across an average of 80 pickers per day, S@S estimates that 1484 tons of recyclables are currently being recycled (plastics HDPE, PET, ALU).
“The buyers’ market in [Makhanda] is very limited,” Warner said.
“The tonnage will be significantly increased once the two-bag system is implemented along with the informal collection mechanisms. I would expect us to reach no less than 5% to 15% (tonnage) being recycled and all of the biomass being composted or utilised in secondary industry which will reduce the landfill by between 60 and 80 tons per month.
“We’ll never get to a point where there is zero waste, but we want to minimise what comes in so that what does come in the gate is handled properly,” Els said. “Soon this will be a very different place. The landfill will change quite rapidly over the next few months.”
What happens next?
Mphele’s main brief is to monitor the eight points of compliance ordered by Judge Jeremy Pickering in his 2015 judgment on the landfill, and reiterated in the March 2020 contempt of court matter brought by the Makana Unity League against the Makana Mayor and Municipal Manager.
“However, within these three years, we also would like to come up with a design for capping the current landfill, and to identify a suitable site for a new landfill,” Els said. “There’s a lot of compliance work to be done first though. It will take at least three years to get all that in place.
“Then will come the designing and building of a new landfill.”
Established correctly and lined as per NEMA, this could cost in the region of R40 million.
“We will have to see if we can get funding for that.”
Makhanda residents have endured smoke from countless fires at the landfill over the years and a catastrophic fire in January 2017 burnt down 26 stables at the adjacent Grahamstown Riding Club.
Mphele Director Marius Els said the fire at the dump will never go out.
“There’s been a methane fire there for 10 years,” Els said. “Every now and again it will pop out on a slope.”
And while the Makhanda landfill has by no means been normal, it’s not abnormal for there to be a continuous low-level methane fire at a landfill site.
“You’ll never get rid of that fire, but at least you can manage it,” Els said.
What’s required is daily compaction – and that’s exactly what the 32-ton machine coming from Joburg will do.
“Unfortunately the bulldozer that has been in operation here isn’t enough to properly compact the waste.”
It spreads and partly flattens the rubbish, Els said..
Makana Mayor Mzukisi Mpahlwa says Makana has no plan to further oppose their contempt of court conviction.
In November 2020, Makana Municipality lost its bid to appeal the contempt of court conviction of its Mayor and Municipal Manager.
Judge Miki Mfenyana had ruled that they had failed to comply with a five-year-old order to properly manage the Cradock road landfill. They were each sentenced to six months’ direct imprisonment, suspended provided they meet the conditions of Judge Pickering’s 2015 ruling.
Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) Judges Mahomed Navsa and AJJA Poyo-Dlwati have dismissed their application to appeal Judge Mfenyana’s March 2020 ruling.
In 2015, Judge Jeremy Pickering handed down a detailed court order requiring Makana Municipality to undertake specific actions to ensure the safe and environmentally sound operation of the landfill site west of the town. The applicants in the matter were the Makana Unity League (MUL), and following a subsequent series of fires at the site over several years, they sought to have Makana held in contempt of court. They singled out the political and administrative heads, seeking to hold the Mayor and Municipal Manager personally liable.
“We have appointed a service provider and the South African Local Government Association has given us a template for reporting the work we are doing there,” Makana Mayor Mzukisi Mpahlwa told GMDirect. “We are submitting a monthly report to the court from the service provider. We will continue to submit the reports to the court, as well as the MUL.”
Mpahlwa said they weren’t interested in pursuing a Concourt appeal after they lost their SCA leave to appeal application.
“We’ve decided not to contest the decision of the court and waste money and time. Instead we will provide evidence that we are addressing Judge Pickering’s eight points,” Mpahlwa said.
“In other words, we intend to address the problem, the original purpose of the matter, not the legal matter itself, because we believe this is in the best interests of the public. We would rather get the work done that caused the court to make the order in the first place.”
Owen Skae, who represents the applicant in the contempt of court matter, said, “We continue to monitor how the dumpsite is being managed. Regarding any next steps we are discussing with our attorneys.”
Attorney Brin Brody, of Wheeldon Rushere and Cole, said the contempt matter would likely be heard in May.
“This will be to activate the order for the term of imprisonment plus MUL’s cost of the case (around R200 000) for the previous application for contempt of court,” Brody told GMDirect this week.
Director of Safety and Community Services Kelello Makgoka confirmed that Mphele had been appointed for three years to manage the landfill site according to the conditions in Judge Pickering’s order.
“A report is submitted every month to the High Court, where the order was made,” Makgoka said.
He also confirmed that part of Mphele’s brief was to identify and undertake compliance applications for a new landfill.
“We are looking at various pockets of municipal land,” Makgoka said.
* The headline earlier said 6 300-ton-a-year problem. That was incorrect. It now matches the story which correctly reads 63 000 tons.