Can Pietermaritzburg's rivers ever come clean?

2008-10-30 00:00

During the third annual community river care day in Pietermaritzburg and Howick recently, 679 volunteers collected over 1 400 bags of waste. Civil society organisations have managed to clean up some sections of local rivers and streams, and acacia grassland is re-emerging in places where there used to be invasive vegetation. However, in other areas, we have barely begun. To get these areas into reasonable shape will require more than an annual clean-up day. It will require a permanent programme and, because all uncollected waste ultimately finds its way into the rivers via the stormwater network, we need to win the war on waste as a whole city before we can win it on any section of the river.

There are seven things this city needs to do differently if it is ever, literally, going to come clean.

Firstly, and most importantly because everything else depends on this, we have to budget for waste management as if it really matters. Over the past three years Pietermaritzburg’s operating budget for waste management has fallen in real terms. That would be fine if the cost reduction had been achieved purely through improving operating efficiencies (and there is room for lots of that), but when there is still so much work being neglected, it is not fine.

In a city with a growing population and a strongly growing economy, the lack of a real increase in our city’s waste management budget is inexplicable. If we also consider that national government gives the city an equitable share grant partly to address this very issue, and that since 2004 this grant has increased at a rate well above inflation, it verges on the immoral.

Secondly, every part of the city must have a waste removal service. There are parts of Pietermaritzburg which are not served at all, and it shows. When you drive around them there is illegal dumping and rubbish everywhere. The inability of the residents in these areas to pay for waste removal is no excuse for the lack of this service because national government gives the city more than enough in grant funding to pay for waste removal for poor families.

Thirdly, we have to go beyond the mindset that the municipality’s responsibility stops with the collection of bagged waste. All waste on public land is the municipality’s responsibility. If the city can’t apply its own laws to stop people from littering or dumping, then the city must pick up the rubbish, wherever it is. If it doesn’t, then the result is neighbourhoods so chronically littered that the residents are blind to the rubbish, and no amount of education will make any difference. Cleanse first, then educate.

Fourthly, recycle, recycle and recycle. This is not going to happen without concerted support from the city, as the economics don’t work out unless we assign a monetary value to cleanliness. If all waste had a value, it would soon enough disappear, just like scrap metal.

We know that Pietermaritzburg is working (oh so slowly) towards the establishment of a materials recycling facility near the landfill site. What about dedicated paper, metal, electronic waste, glass and plastics bins at neighbourhood sites all over the city? Such sites are few and far between in the city and so only the most dedicated even bother to try to recycle.

Fifthly, there need to be more drop-off sites for non-garden waste. How can we expect everyone in the city to travel all the way to the New England Road site when they need to dump something? This is not only inequitable, it’s unrealistic and the result is that so many don’t bother.

Sixthly, we need to develop some backbone when it comes to the policing of our anti-littering and anti-dumping bylaws. Stiffer fines, actually applied, with appropriate alternative penalties and public naming and shaming would make a difference. If people are caught littering, why not give them a black bag and order them to fill it right then and there? If they will not comply, then what about a special litter louts’ holding cage in Market Square for spot detentions? A campaign like this would require resources, but after a year or two we bet that the message would be understood — as no amount of billboard and radio advertising would ever achieve.

Finally, we’d like to see this city pass some laws to reduce packaging. Our modern society is totally over the top with packaging, and most of it is non-biodegradeable. Why not start with fast-food outlets and ban the use of plastic and polystyrene there? If we judge from what floats down the rivers, that measure alone would make an enormous difference. Then we could go on to plastic shopping bags — do we really need them at all?

Solid waste is only the most visually disturbing of the many environmental ills that blight our rivers and our city. However, just as New York brought down crime with its zero-tolerance policy on minor misdemeanours (the broken window policy), we wonder how many other problems we could go on to solve if we got serious about our rubbish. It would be nice if one day we could take visitors down the uMsunduzi, the river from which our municipality takes its name, and feel proud.

• David Still is a professional civil engineer specialising in water and sanitation. He writes in his capacity as chairman of the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct).

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