Addressing Waste Management in South Africa, one disposable diaper at a time By Mario Williams, EMEA Materials Sustainability & Circularity Leader at Kimberly-Clark

In South Africa, waste management is a critical issue that affects us all. While many communities rely on municipalities to manage waste appropriately, effectively, efficiently, and sustainably, the infrastructure backbone of the country has yet to fully evolve to meet the needs of the whole population. This is particularly true in rural, peri-urban, township, and informal settlement areas where waste management remains a significant challenge.

One of the most pressing concerns is the incorrect disposal of absorbent hygiene products (AHP) like diapers and sanitary pads. When these items are not disposed of correctly, they can end up polluting water bodies and contribute to the broader issue of waste pollution in general.

Unfortunately, people often ignore the fate of their waste, adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. This detachment leads to unbridled consumption and waste, hiding its environmental toll and blocking sustainable disposal awareness and efforts.

The Reality on-the-ground

In South Africa, given the multitude of pressing concerns in several municipalities in rural, peri-urban, township and informal settlement areas, waste management has lower budgets. Furthermore, due to the complexity and multi-dimensionality of waste management systems, the skills to implement and manage the systems are in shortage. The private sector’s limited participation is also a significant obstacle.

Despite these challenges, there are global and local initiatives aimed at addressing them. The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Extended Producer Responsibility regulations, and the Climate Change Bill in South Africa are steps towards sustainable waste management and climate change mitigation. These policies aim to reduce emissions, promote renewable energy, and enhance community resilience to climate change.

Exploring new solutions

Private sector collaboration is also critical in addressing waste management challenges and can help develop solutions to enable other municipalities to address more effectively the complexities of urbanisation.

The Kimberly-Clark Huggies Bright Bin project has been one example of how collaboration with the private sector can help alleviate pressure in waste management. The project came off the back of the 2021 Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment commission report, which advocated for the establishment of cost-effective programmes for separation at source and collection of AHP waste.

In 2022, Green Edge, a sustainable development consultancy, and The University of the Western Cape in collaboration with Kimberly-Clark, embarked on a study to cocreate community-relevant collection solutions for source-separated AHP waste.

The study delivered a 2023 pilot which had two phases; the first phase saw registered mothers receive starter kits, including waste bags, a bin, and a Huggies Bright Bin sling bag, for drop-offs at their Early Childhood Development Centre. The second phase introduced a pick-up service by the Langa Safety Patrol which employed local youth, who collected diapers door-to-door. The program successfully handled 23,400 diapers, totalling over 5,500kg over approximately 12 weeks.

Building the future, now

Whilst at this initial stage the pilot evaluated collection of AHPs for responsible disposal in landfill, the longer-term objective is to divert AHP waste from landfill to a more circular treatment and reprocessing. In order to advance the development of these technologies, research has to be focused on efficient at-source collection systems for a wider range of community contexts to provide estimates of regular volumes of material that could be delivered to treatment plants.

In conclusion, greater awareness from community leaders, local and provincial government authorities, policy makers and the general public, is required to ensure effective waste management initiatives are established and sustainably managed. The lack of awareness and involvement results in minimal participation in practices, additionally burdening local governments.

This approach holds the hope of a more substantial and far-reaching impact, by reducing the environmental impact, promoting economic development, and improving public health and quality of life.