Marianhill Landfill Conservancy

When people think about landfills and waste management, what springs to mind are bad odours and poisons detrimental to the eco-system. Not much is done to change this other than citizens holding their breath as they drive past sites or many environmentalists comfortably parking off on their soapboxes. What makes Marianhill Landfill Conservancy in Kwazulu-Natal different from other landfill sites in the country and arguably the world is that it has been incorporated into an ecosystem restoration site and has subsequently been registered as a National Conservancy Site. It not only maintains indigenous ecosystems, preserve biodiversity, impacts upon decreasing the emission of green house gases but has also innovated the mechanisms of waste management. The UN has even acknowledged its pioneering methodologies this year and has shortlisted Marianhill in their prestigious Public Services Award Programme.

Two types of land uses – landfilling and conservation – find it difficult to obtain land because of developmental pressures of urbanisation. Marianhill effectively addresses these seemingly contradictory issues. The nature conservancy was made possible largely through the innovative mechanism the site uses to treat the daily 450 tons of general municipal waste they receive. Their ‘Closed Loop System’ provides both environmental protection and facilitates the collection and treatment of landfill emissions. This system requires a barrier be erected in the soil that collects waste matter like liquid or gas and prevents it from escaping. Sonja Pithey (Impumeleo Evaluator) notes “this on-site treatment of Leachate (produced because of rainfall passing through the waste) to a re-usable standard lessens the load on municipal sewer and supplies water on site for dust control and irrigation of vegetated areas, thereby decreasing the load on municipal drinking water supply”. The recycled waste matter is proving very cost-effective. Waste products like methane gas, which is a good fuel, is used to generate electricity. As a result the plant is largely self-sustainable.

A Plant Rescue Unit was created and the nursery holds an array of indigenous vegetation along with the surrounding soil profile. Sonja remarked, “It was refreshing to see this principle of ‘search and rescue’, which is slowly finding it way into environmentally sound construction and development, applied to landfill practice”. It is estimated that the nursery has saved the municipality more than R2 million in re-vegetation costs and with the ongoing rehabilitation accounts for a further saving of up to R7 million. There now is also an alien plant programme, a constructed wetland as well as a wildlife sanctuary. Marianhill also cultivates a bird sanctuary that houses 118 different species of bird. Sonja commented upon her visit to the site, “I had to remind myself that this was an area where domestic waste was being disposed of”.

Although greener waste management for landfills are important, what should be remembered is that more landfills are necessary only because of the society’s increase in waste production. As an attempt to curb this, one class from a different school is brought on site for education and awareness around waste management, recycling, biodiversity and conservation each week. Between 60-120 learners are accommodated weekly and these educational sessions are open to all sectors of society and they have serviced groups ranging from university students to women’s groups where they are sensitised to waste management, recycling and other environmental issues.

Contrary to other landfill areas, Marianhill impacts modestly but positively on its surrounding areas. A mandatory 200m buffer zone separates the site from a middle-income area as well as a rural and low-cost housing location. Odour is the biggest impact usually made on a residential area by a landfill but Marianhill combats this by acting quickly on waste disposal, capturing odour-creating gas in conjunction with spraying the area with odour preventing sprays. Sonja observed, “Anyone who has ever visited a typical landfill site would recognise the…battered access roads, flies, odours, dust and windblown litter. I could not find any of these at Marianhill”.

This initiative would not have been possible without the assistance of Ethekwini Municipality, who remains a key role player since a project like this is improving their service delivery. Although there were no other involvements of national government departments, the provincial Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Board guided the process with them being responsible for granting the landfill the conservancy status. There were also other important stakeholders involved like Wildlife Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA), Marianhill Landfill Monitoring Committee, Marianhill Monastery, the Rate-Payers Association and Siyenza Engineers.

Their landfill approach has been replicated in two other sites with an older one being rehabilitated and one just outside Durban just recently having their nursery up and running. Implementing these strategies work better in newly created sites because old sites are degraded and entrenched in outmoded ways of doing things. Marianhill is also unique in the sense that Civil Engineers run the site as opposed to the standard health inspectors who are not actually qualified for the job. This could be another challenge for replication but one if combated could be very beneficial to South Africa’s waste management.

Marianhill combats many obstacles in the country’s waste management systems that are important considerations for government policies. Municipalities are not budgeting correctly for waste management and the ‘Closed Loop System’ does not cost any more than running a landfill correctly, which is not the case, with landfills run not only incorrectly but also with a low budget. Marianhill has also started training their own operators for the operation of machinery at the plant. Government has none-the-less acknowledged Marianhill and included it in NEPAD. The project has assisted African countries like Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, India and Malaysia with waste management education. Marianhill illustrates the effectiveness of combining engineering with environmentalism, two seemingly opposing spheres or as Sonja comments “the phrase ‘Engineering for Conservation’ comes to mind”.

Published in The Citizen