The world finds itself in a delicate dance with destruction. Our carbon footprint seems to grow, with the attitude seeming to be to capitalise until we can’t anymore. Eventually we will reach that point and our planet will crumble due to our waste. It is with this in mind that Phumlani S Langa sets out to track his trash and gain an understanding from waste removal experts about the impact of our waste.
The amount of waste we’re responsible for as humans has grown at an alarming rate, so much so that we are a few years away from a complete breakdown as far as disposal methods go.
The time for change is at hand. We very seldom wonder how something works until it goes wrong.
When workers at Pikitup, Joburg’s official waste management service provider, go on strike, we hit Twitter hard to complain, but what about the rest of the time when this and other waste removal companies quietly go about making our city cleaner? Have you ever considered what happens to that bit of trash you discard so thoughtlessly? Where does it go and what happens to it? #Trending decided to follow our trash.
Pick up artists
It’s a chilly Tuesday morning at the Pikitup depot in Selby, Johannesburg. The large waste trucks are all parked in a lot as workers mill around getting ready to go on their routes. We’re going to follow the trash from near the depot in Selby to the Robinson Deep landfill in Turffontein, where it eventually ends up.
I meet Muzi Wama-Hlubi and his team of eight as they ready their truck for their morning pick up, which will take a few hours to complete. Starting off in Jeppe near Maboneng, they scour the pavements with tactical precision, wheeling black bins off the curb and loading them on to the two bin lifts attached to the back.
“Not all days are the same, sometimes it takes longer to do a route. Mondays and Thursdays are rough around here,” Wama-Hlubi tells me as he walks around the truck.
At each stop, his crew gets out and runs up towards bins on street corners. Any scrap slayers rummaging are politely told not to leave a mess and the rapport between the two groups is quite chipper.
The truck then drives to a landfill in the south of Joburg. The surrounding areas look forlorn and almost abandoned, the people look a bit sad. At the Robinson Deep landfill it’s business as usual. Large trucks manoeuvre their way into the grimy complex, one of the city’s largest and oldest landfills. It has been operational since 1932, and this mountain of garbage stands at 80m. If we don’t curb our waste, we have about six years before we have to consider other means or places to dump.
Birds fly around the mountain of waste, swooping down to gorge themselves on our discarded food waste. A bumpy ride on the back of a bakkie takes you closer to the odious summit. Tank trucks spray out a mixture of water and a chemical, which neutralises the smell. It seems to really work, as I don’t see a fly up there. Workers even eat their lunch on the landfill.
A man in blue overalls emerges from a cloud of dust, with a face mask on. He looks quite sinister until he drops the mask and smiles warmly. He says his name is Johannes Sibalabala.
“I help out with clearing a path for the trucks to dump and make sure not one space gets too heavily used.”
He says the job is okay, but he’s seen some strange things end up in the landfill.
“The one really strange thing I saw was a baby ... you know people do that in our country, even an adult body. Those two things have stuck with me but, espan espan,” he says.
Dirty digits reveal a harsh truth
The busiest days here are Thursdays and Tuesdays. Work stops at 4pm but there is a night crew that comes in to deal with areas such as the CBD, which is congested during the day.
The rubbish is compressed using special-purpose compactors and then covered with a 15cm layer of top soil, which is why the height of the mountain grows. Private waste sites charge you no matter what you dump at their sites but here, sand and garden rubble are free.
Pikitup’s spokesperson Muzi Mkhwanazi tells me the site deals with 103 206 tons of waste a month and 25 801 tons per week. He explains: “In 2017 to 2018 about 1 238 to 474 million tons of waste were disposed of at Pikitup’s landfill sites.”
There are 12 Pikitup depots strategically located throughout the seven regions of the City of Johannesburg, all tended to by a workforce of 5 413 and an operational budget of R2.5 billion.
Eno Dlamini has been a dozer operator for eight months at the Robinson Deep landfill. The raspy voiced man says: “It gets very busy, as you can see many trucks come in, but we push ourselves.”
He says he’s seen the levels of waste increase even in the short time he’s been there.
“It would be better if we could find other ways to dispose of our waste, chemical waste is particularly bad.”
At the Selby depot reception hangs a poster that reads: “Pride, intelligence, knowledge, teamwork, understanding, passion [Pikitup].”
No doubt traits we will need to adopt if we want to soften our impact on the environment, before it’s too late.