Your waste disposal habits could save lives, and livelihoods


Waste workers, both formal and informal, play a critical role in South Africa’s economy, contributing R24.3 billion to GDP, and their contact with people’s disposables, especially in homes where there are COVID-19 infections, is endangering their lives and compromising the incredible potential of the waste economy to sustain livelihoods and improve the environment.

South Africa collected 519 370 tonnes of plastic for recycling in 2018, which is the weight of about 87 000 African elephants. Seen in these terms, the potential for spreading COVID-19, is significant and it is only going to get worse.

The World Bank, in a snapshot of solid waste management to 2050,  shows that the Sub-Saharan African region generates a significant amount of waste, and this is expected to increase at a higher rate than for any other region due to rapid urbanisation and population growth.

While COVID-19 is spread mainly through respiratory droplets and most often through person-to-person contact, evidence suggests that the virus sticks to household waste.

Without proper care through sanitisation and keeping rubbish aside for a few days before collection, COVID-19 remains stable on all surfaces, notably on plastic and stainless steel.

We must accept that COVID-19 is here for a while, and that other dangerous diseases may arrive on our shores in the coming decades.

With increased waste, especially plastic waste, we must play our part in preserving the health and saving the lives of our waste workers through changing simple waste management habits. 

Municipal waste workers are considered “essential workers” and while personal protective equipment is planned to  be provided to these workers, less is known about the importance of households employing the correct waste disposal procedures to prevent the spread of the virus to waste workers.

Mindful household waste disposal habits will also protect those most marginalised and vulnerable: informal waste workers.

It is estimated that there are between 60 000 and 90 000 informal landfill and kerbside waste pickers in South Africa and that they supply 90% of packaging waste to recyclers.

Senior lecturer in Human Geography at Wits University, Melanie Samson, reiterates the important role that informal waste workers play.

Only 10,8% of urban households separate their waste (most people throw recyclables away), but the country has recycling rates comparable to European countries for some materials.

Samson notes that informal waste workers save municipalities R750-million a year in landfill costs. And yet, they are not paid for the services provided.

Their marginalisation became apparent when their work was not deemed essential during levels four and five of South Africa’s lockdown.

Moreover, like millions of other informal workers in the country they are not eligible to access government financial support programmes.  Informal waste workers in particular do not have the required gear to protect themselves from acquiring and transmitting the virus.

It is up to us to play our part in protecting all waste workers, and in doing so, contribute to economic and social growth.

These are some useful ways to dispose your waste safely:

  1. Do not throw gloves, masks, wipes, tissues, or packaging into the environment as this could continue the spread of COVID-19.
  2. Separate your waste for recycling and non-recycling and delay the collection or drop-off of these items by five days. This may reduce the spread of COVID-19.
  3. Clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects, including frequently touched surfaces such as counters, bank cards, cell phones, groceries, and handles.
  4. Tissues, wipes, paper towels or other materials used when sneezing or coughing must immediately be thrown in a secure refuse bin, bag, or packet. After such disposal, correct hand hygiene should be performed. Delay putting the waste out for collection by five days.
  5. Frequently disinfect and wash reusable personal protective equipment (reusable masks, etcetera).
  6. Disposable gloves are not necessary and are not recommended unless you are providing health care, waste management and cleaning services. Where possible, rather wash your hands or sanitize instead of using disposable gloves.
  7. Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after touching any packaging or waste materials. If washing is not possible, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Tony Ribbink is the chief executive officer of the Sustainable Seas Trust


* The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the COVID-19 virus is more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, remaining viable on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours. The analysis of 22 studies reveals that human coronaviruses can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass, or plastic for up to 9 days, but can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures.

*Melanie Samson’s insights can be accessed here:

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