All businesses create some sort of waste, but knowing if it is hazardous is integral to saving lives, the planet and gearing South Africa towards a circular economy, aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.
Businesses, big or small, don’t dispose of their waste correctly because they think it might be costly and tedious. Or they may not even know how much hazardous waste they produce and there is no need to dispose of it indiscriminately.
Hazardous waste is not just the toxic, bubbling, green sludgy slime of a radioactive bath the villain of a movie falls into.
Hazardous waste can be everyday items, explains head of sustainability at global waste management company Averda Brindha Roberts.
According to Roberts, pesticides, paints, motor oil, varnishes, antifreeze, various types of batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, fertilisers, thermometers, thermostats, solvents, unused medicine and even bathroom and tile cleaners are just some of the examples of everyday hazardous waste.
Not many people know the difference between hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Photo: iStock
Hazardous waste contains organic or inorganic elements or compounds that could have a detrimental impact on health and the environment.
Waste is classified according to Waste Classification and Management Regulations, in accordance with SANS 10234. The classification essentially categorises all waste based on the nature and severity of the potential hazard.
The glamorous job of collecting, verifying, analysing and evaluating data on hazardous waste, falls on the South African Waste Information System (SAWIS). The application process can be done online or in hard copy.
Any company that generates 20kg or more of hazardous waste a day must apply for a SAWIS number, Roberts said.
Waste must be classified within 180 days of generation. If not, Roberts said it could have “far-reaching implications” for the planet and offenders, including prison, fine, or both.
“If not properly managed, some forms of hazardous waste can quickly spread and contaminate land, water and air,” she said.
Raw sewage making its way to the Vaal River. Photo: Tracy Lee Stark
The management and collection of accurate data to see how many different types of hazardous waste are being generated also adheres to guidelines as per the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
“We’ve noticed many smaller firms are still unaware of this legislation and how it affects their duties and obligations when it comes to hazardous waste,” Roberts said.
“In fact, around half of the hazardous waste that arrives at Averda’s flagship Vlakfontein landfill site have no SAWIS registration number, which compromises Averda’s own licence requirements and causes administrative hiccups.”
This means waste has to be reloaded onto the system.
Roberts said the disposal of hazardous waste largely depends on the type of waste.
“Some hazardous waste is neutralised and made into alternative fossil fuels that can be used for making other products.”
Landfill facilities designed to contain hazardous waste are used to dispose of hazardous waste according to international standards, such as leak detection and leachate management, Roberts explained. These sites are classified in terms of what waste is being disposed of and according to environmental norms and standards.
Averda’s Vlakfontein Class A hazardous waste landfill, the first of its kind to be built in Vereeniging, Gauteng. Photo: Averda website
“Landfills designated for disposal of hazardous waste contain run-off of contaminated surface water and are constructed with minimal risk to natural water catchments,” Roberts explained.
For groundwater to remain unpolluted, several layers of liners are used as well as monitoring and detection systems.
Personal protective equipment has to be worn during disposal and treatment to make sure that the reactivity is known and prevented.
For example, Roberts said decontamination units and personal respiratory monitoring and hazardous suits are required to dispose of asbestos.
Waste is also only meant to be transported in designated vehicles.
A circular economy is envisioned in many societies for the future by eliminating waste and using natural resources safely.
Only 8.6% of the waste in the world is circular, according to the World Economic Forum.
Hazardous waste has an important role to play in this future, Roberts said, as the classification of waste enables opportunities for reuse and recycling.
“The shift towards a circular economy means manufacturers have to rethink the raw materials and products they produce to reduce hazardous waste generation and increase the recovery or recyclability of these materials,” Roberts explained.
“A common sustainability goal of diversion of waste from landfill can only be achieved once the waste stream is classified and assessed to determine and enable alternatives,” she added.
To this end, Roberts said consumers have a duty in raising the alarm if product and service providers fail to adhere to waste protocols.
Fuel and chemical drums dumped on the Arctic coast. Photo: iStock
She said consumers must question and audit their service providers’ management and control of waste where possible.
And businesses that comply with national waste strategy and sustainability goals should make it known in order to educate consumers, Roberts advised.
Hazardous waste leaking into environments not built to contain it spells disaster for already frail ecosystems.
Roberts said water systems could be contaminated, causing harm to people and the environment. Uncontrolled waste also threaten to wreak havoc if disposed of in landfills without the appropriate controls to contain and detect pollution.
The physical, chemical and toxicological characteristics of waste can be damaging and fatal to all living creatures, making the classification of it that much more important.
If we know what waste is hazardous or not and then take action, it means a concerted step towards lessening the existing damage inflicted on our planet and lessen the waste created by humans.
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