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Your waste disposal habits could save lives, and livelihoods

Waste workers, both formal and informal, play a critical role in South Africa's economy, contributing R24.3-billion to GDP.

Waste workers, both formal and informal, play a critical role in South Africa’s economy, contributing R24.3-billion to GDP.

Their contact with people’s disposables, especially in homes where there are Covid-19 infections, is endangering their lives and compromising the incredible potential of the waste economy to sustain livelihoods and improve the environment said Tony Ribbink, CEO of the Sustainable Seas Trust.

South Africa collected 519 370 tons of plastic for recycling in 2018, which is the weight of about 87 000 African elephants.

“Seen in these terms, the potential for spreading Covid-19 is significant and it is only going to get worse,” said Ribbink.

He added that the World Bank, in a snapshot of solid waste management to 2050, showed that the Sub-Saharan African region generates a significant amount of waste.


Concern raised over residents in overcrowded properties

“This is expected to increase at a higher rate than for any other region due to rapid urbanisation and population growth.”

Ribbink said that while Covid-19 is spread mainly through respiratory droplets and most often through person-to-person contact, evidence suggests that the virus sticks to household waste.

“Without proper care through sanitisation and keeping rubbish aside for a few days before collection, Covid-19 remains stable on all surfaces, notably on plastic and stainless steel.

“We must accept that Covid-19 is here for a while and that other dangerous diseases may arrive on our shores in the coming decades.

“With increased waste, especially plastic waste, we must play our part in preserving the health and saving the lives of our waste workers through changing simple waste management habits.”

The Sustainable Seas Trust CEO added that municipal waste workers are considered essential workers and while PPE is planned to be provided to these workers, less is known about the importance of households employing the correct waste disposal procedures to prevent the spread of the virus to waste workers.

“Mindful household waste disposal habits will also protect those most marginalised and vulnerable: informal waste workers.”

It is estimated that there are between 60 000 and 90 000 informal landfill and kerbside waste pickers in South Africa and that they supply 90 per cent of packaging waste to recyclers.

Senior lecturer in human geography at the University of the Witwatersrand Melanie Samson reiterated the important role informal waste workers play.

“Only 10.8 per cent of urban households separate their waste, while most people throw recyclables away, but the country has recycling rates comparable to European countries for some materials,” she said.

Samson added that informal waste workers save municipalities R750-million a year in landfill costs.

“And yet, they are not paid for the services provided.”

These are some useful ways to dispose your waste safely:

  • Do not throw gloves, masks, wipes, tissues or packaging into the environment as this could continue the spread of Covid-19.
  • Separate your waste for recycling and non-recycling and delay the collection or drop-off of these items by five days. This may reduce the spread of Covid-19.
  • Clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects, including frequently touched surfaces, such as counters, bank cards, cellphones, groceries and handles.
  • Tissues, wipes, paper towels or other materials used when sneezing or coughing must immediately be thrown in a secure refuse bin, bag or packet.
  • Disposable gloves are not necessary and are not recommended unless you are providing health-care, waste management and cleaning services.
  • Where possible, rather wash your hands or sanitise instead of using disposable gloves.

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