Posted on 7 Aug 2020

South Africa’s devotion to sustainable development seeks to protect environmental resources, while balancing the broader social and economic challenges of a developing society. For the waste materials in South Africa, this involves the use of resource efficiency, product design, raw materials, waste minimisation and prevention where avoidance is impossible (DEA, 2012:278). Increased waste generation in South Africa is due to increasing urbanization rates, growing population and economic development that require the implementation of effective waste management programs and policies. (DEA, 2012:278).


In the midst of a global pandemic caused by COVID-19, the provisions governing the proper disposal of waste in South Africa must be recalled, with reference to the provisions of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act no. 59 of 2008 (NEMWA), the National Environmental Management Act no. 107 of 1998 (NEMA) and the National Health Act No. 61 of 2003 (NHA) (Michael, 2020).


The waste sector is undergoing a paradigm shift worldwide towards a circular economy where waste is observed a secondary resource, not only for energy recovery, but also for recovery, recycling and reuse of materials (Oelofse and Nahman, 2018:4). Modern waste management aims to shift the waste hierarchy by increasing recycling and reducing sales dependency (Wilson et al., 2006:798).





The aim of the waste management hierarchy is to achieve optimal environmental outcomes and is accepted nationally and internationally as a guide for prioritizing waste management practices. “It describes the preferred order of waste management practices, from most to least preferred”. The purpose of the waste hierarchy is to generate the minimum amount of waste and extract maximum practical benefits from products. The correct application of the waste hierarchy can have numerous advantages. It can help reduce pollution, decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, conserve energy, preserve resources, create job opportunities and stimulate the growth of green technology (DEA, 2017:27).

The waste management hierarchy offers a systematic and holistic approach to waste management during the waste life cycle, which in turn addresses reduction, avoidance, reuse, recovery, treatment, recycling and safe disposal as a last option (DEA, 2011: 6; DEA, 2012:279). The Waste Act objectives are structured around the waste management hierarchy, which is the general approach that informs waste management in South Africa (DEA, 2011:6). Figure 1 below is an illustration of the waste management hierarchy as described above.

Figure 1: Illustration of the waste management hierarchy (Van Jaarsveldt, 2016:16).




Waste management highlights the following key elements (DEA, 2011:19; DEA, 2012: 279):

  • Avoidance and Reduction: Materials and products must be designed in a way that reduces the natural materials used, their waste components and the waste generated during production as well as after the consumption of the material or product;
  • Re-use: Materials can be used for different or similar purposes without changing their properties or shape. This approach seeks to re-use a product or material when it is no longer in use. In this way, it becomes an input for new materials and products;
  • Recycling: This includes the separation of materials from the waste stream and its processing as raw materials or products. The foundation of the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ waste management approach is the first elements of the waste management hierarchy;
  • Recovery: Recycle specific materials or components or use as fuel;
  • Treatment and disposal: This is a ‘last resort’ within the waste hierarchy. Treatment refers to the alteration of the physical properties of waste or destroying the toxic constituents of waste. Disposal refers specifically to the burial or disposal of waste in or on the land. For example, landfill disposal;
  • Legal: The treatment and disposal of waste must be in accordance with the principles of environmental justice and equitable access to environmental services as set out in NEMA.


There are a number of benefits accompanied with the waste management hierarchy, including (Oelofse and Nahman, 2018:5):


  • Re-use, recycling and waste minimization reduce all environmental and social costs (externalities) associated with landfills (such as odours, health hazards, pollution of water resources and soil, visual impact, reduced value and availability of land, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.);
  • Waste re-use and reduction can reduce the environmental and social costs of waste collection and disposal;
  • Energy recovery and recycling contribute to job creation and economic growth as a whole, and can also promote improvement and create new business opportunities;
  • Energy recovery and recycling motivate the recycling of energy or valuable materials and recycle it back into the economy. These materials can contribute in the manufacture of new products.


By climbing the hierarchy after re-use, recycling and recovery promotes the values of a green economy in different ways:


  • Launching resources back into the economy (DST, 2014:2).
  • Promotes job creation and economic growth, (DST, 2014:2). This steers to a net increase in employment levels (DST, 2014:25).
  • Decrease of environmental and social costs (DST, 2014:2).


There is an enduring significance of the hierarchy as a guideline, particularly in the context of (Gertsakis and Lewis, 2003:1):


  • Sustainability objectives, which should consider complex interactions between systems (economic, social and physical systems) and impacts (such as energy and waste), in preference to focusing on single issues;
  • The prompt development of new technologies for waste recycling, such as commercial composting and gasification; and
  • New trends and concepts in product policy, including Life Cycle Assessment, Product Management, Eco-Efficiency and Eco-Innovation.




South African waste legislation is informed and influenced by the key fundamentals of the waste hierarchy, which determine the general strategic approach to waste management (DEA, 2012:279). The National Environmental Management: Waste Act (No. 59 of 2008) (NEM:WA), with the purpose of applying the principles of the waste management hierarchy in South Africa, has established to include further requirements such as waste recycling and minimisation (GreenCape, 2016:28).


With the announcement of NEM:WA in 2008, all organs of state within South Africa were required to achieve the objectives of the waste management hierarchy (GreenCape, 2016:28). A National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS) was developed in 2011 to achieve the objectives of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act 2008 (Act 59 of 2008) and to offer a plan to discuss challenges associated to waste management in South Africa. (Van Jaarsveldt, 2016:14). South Africa has embraced the waste management hierarchy by including it in our National Waste Management Strategy to guarantee effective service delivery, while the economy grows through the development of businesses and enhanced job creation (DEA, 2011:18; DEA, 2012:279; GreenCape, 2016:28; IWMSA, 2017:1).


The Waste Management Hierarchy was established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a guide for prioritizing waste management practices in line with the smallest environmental impact. This is the foundation South Africa has established to unite with the rest of the world in undertaking waste management problems (IWMSA, 2017:1).


The waste management hierarchy comprises of waste management alternatives during the waste life cycle. All stakeholders must apply the waste management hierarchy in the decision-making on waste management (DEA, 2011:18). “The Waste Act creates a general duty for waste containers to avoid waste and, if not, to reduce the amount and toxicity of the generated waste” (DEA, 2011:21). Thereafter, they are required to recycle, re-use or recover waste. Numerous instruments in the Act enforce this duty of care, including integrated waste management plans, norms and standards, waste management plan, priority waste and extensive producer responsibility. The industry and government will coordinate their movements in a waste minimisation program that outlines the different policies and categorises the services and goods to which the provisions apply. (DEA, 2011:21).


Integrated Waste Management Plans (IWMPs) is a tool to attain the objectives of the NWMS as well as NEM:WA (DEA, 2012:299). IWMPs ensure waste management in the municipality is consistent with the waste management hierarchy that inspires a new paradigm shift (DEA, 2012:299).


In an ideal world, source reduction is the most desired option for waste management if less is produced, less should be thrown away. “Reducing waste at its source looks at the beginning of the product’s life cycle” (IWMSA, 2017:2). Recyclability, better material choices, re-usability and biodegradability all put pressure on the producer, which increases the responsibility of production. This is known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and is used as a governing mechanism in the National Environmental Management: Waste Act (59 of 2008) (NEM:WA). It is important that we follow such obligatory approaches to enforcing the first two levels of the waste management hierarchy (IWMSA, 2017:2).




The value of resources that are currently lost to the South African economy is reduced by dumping them as waste. By understanding the importance and value of resources lost to the South African economy, a well-informed discussion can take place between stakeholders (industry and government) on the economic benefits of moving up in the hierarchy (DST, 2014:1). The foundation of the NEM:WA and the NMWS are based on the waste hierarchy. All integrated waste management plans must contain the whole concept of the waste hierarchy (Van Jaarsveldt, 2016:16).


There is a need to reduce the irrelevant use of raw materials and to assist the need for waste prevention, sustainable product design and resource efficiency. This entails the re-use of products where possible; and restoring value of products when they reach their lifetime through composting, energy recovery or recycling. Although the removal of waste as a whole is not practicable, it is feasible through the efficient application of the waste management hierarchy to reach a point within the next few decades where recycling, re-use, treatment and recovery will engulf the landfills as preferred options for waste management (DEA, 2011:10).


The current overall state of waste management in Africa is substandard and is not initially not sufficiently promoted for the implementation of the waste hierarchy. However, the estimated growth in waste generation and people living in poverty requires action to refine waste management on the continent. Waste opportunities must be seen as an important resource for the benefit of Africa and its people (Oelofse and Nahman, 2018:8).




Department of Environmental Affairs. 2011. National Waste Management Strategy. South Africa.


Department of Environmental Affairs. 2012. Waste Management. South Africa.


Department of Environmental Affairs. 2017. Industry Waste Tyre Management Plan.  Tyre Waste Abatement and Minimisation Initiative of South Africa.


Department of Human Settlements. 2000. GUIDELINES FOR HUMAN SETTLEMENT PLANNING AND DESIGN. CSIR Building and Construction Technology. Pretoria.


Department of Science and Technology. 2014. A National Waste R&D and Innovation Roadmap for South Africa: Phase 2 Waste RDI Roadmap. The economic benefits of moving up the waste management hierarchy in South Africa: The value of resources lost through landfilling. Department of Science and Technology: Pretoria.


Gertsakis, J. en Lewis, H. 2003. Sustainability and the waste management hierarchy.


Godfrey, L. en Oelofse, S. 2017. Historical review of waste management and recycling in South Africa. Resources, 6(4):57.


GreenCape. 2016. Waste Economy: Market Intelligence Report 2016. GreenCape, Cape Town


IWMSA. 2017. South Africa climbing up the Waste Management Hierarchy. Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa.


Michael, H. 2020. Disposal of medical waste in the contexts of COVID-19. Werksmans Attorneys.


Oelofse, S.H. en Nahman, A. 2018. Waste as a resource–Opportunities in Africa.


Van Jaarsveldt, D. 2016. Market Analysis Waste management and Recycling in South Africa, 2016. Johannesburg, South Africa.


Wilson, D.C., Velis, C. en Cheeseman, C. 2006. Role of informal sector recycling in waste management in developing countries. Habitat international, 30(4):797-808.


Wilson, D.C. 2007. Development drivers for waste management. Waste Management & Research, 25(3):198-207.