The recent fire at the New England Road landfill in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal has raised awareness about the myriad issues facing the proper management of such sites throughout South Africa. Infrastructure company AECOM can offer municipalities a complete service for landfill management, according to Technical Environmental Services (TES) Practice Lead Renier Pretorius (Pr.Sci.Nat).
Traditionally, TES focused on remediation of contaminated land, but AECOM has recently broadened its remit to facilitate a more integrated approach to its services by combining geotechnical, civil infrastructure and hydrogeological expertise.
In terms of landfill assessments, AECOM’s integrated approach allows it to assist clients throughout the landfill lifecycle, from site identification and landfill design through to rehabilitation and closure planning. A key component of landfill management is also regulatory. In this case, AECOM provides advisory services as well as the technical expertise to ensure legal compliance related to waste management and water use, explains Elisabeth Nortje (Pri.Sci.Nat.), Market Sector Lead – Environment, Africa at AECOM.
The TES division and the environmental service offering is complementary, with these two fundamental aspects running in parallel on a typical project in order to give proper guidance to the client. “The end result is an integrated and holistic approach,” emphasises Pretorius.
“We like to engage with the client as opposed to just adopting an off-the-shelf approach. We adopt a needs analysis as opposed to a tick-box approach. Viability is critical, as we need to consider the actual budget and capability of the client so as to determine the best phased approach possible.”
The regulatory aspect is important, especially due to the large number of unlicensed landfill sites in South Africa. It takes at least nine to 12 months to obtain environmental approval, in addition to all of the supporting specialist technical studies are required. Therefore, the critical pathway of any landfill project is quite often the authorisation component.
“Many municipalities are really struggling to get this right. In addition, we also have so many unlicensed landfill sites. This is a historic problem, given that many are quite old and started operating well before the latest environmental legislation came into effect,” adds Nortje.
It was only after the late 1990s that the government put in place the first properly documented and guided approach for assessing and identifying suitable landfill sites, assessing the waste streams and mitigating any associated risk. However, a related aspect is institutional capacity, with many smaller municipalities struggling to maintain adequate record-keeping or groundwater monitoring, for example.
Additionally, “as a result of our historic planning environment, you will very often find that a lot of South African landfill sites are now in areas where communities are encroaching, simply due to the location. Thus there is an attendant social component,” stresses Nortje. Here is where an external consultant like AECOM can play a critical role in assisting local municipalities in managing their landfill sites.
The current legislative framework provided by the national government stipulates licensing and management requirements for each stage of a landfill’s lifecycle. If a landfill site is currently operating unlicensed, it probably does not comply with the appropriate design criteria either.
“Our municipalities often simply do not have the skills or capacity to deal with what is a very complex issue,” highlights Nortje. If external support from the private sector is required by a municipality, an independent review of the status quo is generally a good starting point, before developing a site-specific plan to address identify gaps through practical and achievable interventions.
“Depending on available financial resources, we generally pick the low-hanging fruit following a risk-based approach,” elaborates Pretorius. The highest risk factors can then be quantified and mitigated accordingly. This information is then conveyed to the appropriate environmental authorities to initiate the authorisation process. The bulk of the technical environmental and engineering data is supplied by AECOM’s technical experts.
Pretorius mentions that, in terms of new landfill sites in South Africa, legislative authorisation is critical. To attain the required authorisation prior to construction and operation, adequate site selection and facility design is required to minimise or eliminate any environmental and human-related risks during operation and after closure. AECOM has aligned itself to offer private and government sector clients technical and legislative support throughout their landfill projects.
Waste management may present major opportunities. A trend is the development of waste-to-energy technology, with countries like Sweden and Denmark paving the way in this important field. Nortje, however, points to an ongoing disconnect between waste generation and environmental awareness with regard to the importance of recycling. “Many people do not actually realise, or even evince much concern, for where waste actually ends up.”
Nortje infers a similarity to the current Covid-19 crisis. While the latter is both a medical and behavioural issue, waste management is equally a social and technical issue. “What we need to recognise is our context. I concur that the informal sector can play a much bigger role, and that the value-add of this sector has probably not been quantified sufficiently. We need to find a South African solution to our waste problem, and not simply superimpose an answer coming out of another country,” she concludes.