The recent discovery of tons of medical waste, packed floor to ceiling in a
suburban west Johannesburg house, has drawn attention to the problems
experienced in the disposal of this material.
According to most players in the waste industry, the fundamental problem is
that there is insufficient capacity in Gauteng for the orderly and legal disposal of all the province's medical garbage.
But behind that simple statement lies a complex issue.
The accepted way of getting rid of medical waste today is to burn it. Johannesburg has five high-tech commercial incineration facilities, one
owned by the metropolitan council and four by private waste company Enviroserv. There are scores of smaller incinerators, such as those at older
hospitals, but many are outdated and fall far short of modern emission standards.
Most hospitals, clinics, doctors' rooms and pathology laboratories in the city make use of specialised disposal companies. Local authorities licence
these operations to collect medical waste and hopefully transport to an incinerator.
Problems arise when the incinerators simply do not have the capacity to handle all the waste delivered to them at any one time, says independent
environmental consultant Dave Baldwin.
The incinerators cannot store large quantities of waste, so it is turned away at the gate if it cannot be burnt
immediately. Which is how it ends up in a residential area of Roodepoort and who knows where else.
When one incinerator goes down for repairs, as happened with the metro plant recently, there is no spare capacity and
immediately a backlog builds up, says Baldwin. The transporters start stockpiling waste all
over the place in warehouses, houses, wherever.
Stan Jewaskiewitz, chairman of the Institute of Waste Management's central branch, says the situation is exacerbated
when a company becomes heavily indebted to an incinerator operator and is refused further access until arrears
Execumed, the company involved in the Roodepoort incident, is one of a number of companies granted permits by city councils to transport waste
from medical facilities in this case from as far afield as the Free State. Four disposal companies have also been awarded tenders to service Gauteng
hospitals. It appears that almost all these companies secured their deals after receiving quotes for incineration from the Johannesburg metro facility.
But, critically, there seems to have been no requirement that the plant operators commit themselves to accept all the waste brought in, or
even any specific tonnage from the respective companies.
Esm Gombault, regional manager of high-technology disposal for Enviroserv, says the generator of medical waste has a responsibility to ensure the
service provider has the capacity and the facilities to handle it. But in recent months, permit holders have been providing a collection and
transport service without the guarantee of an incinerator. Nowhere are questions asked about the final destination of the waste,
says Gombault. Most observers emphasise a need for more disposal facilities. Who should
Constitutionally, environmental matters are the responsibility of all three levels of government. And all appear to be acutely aware of a
developing crisis in waste management.
Following exhaustive national government studies of the issue, Gauteng is now formulating its own action strategy, which will have technical
assistance and funding from the Danish government.
Trish Hanekom, head of Gauteng's agriculture, conservation, environment and land affairs
department believes the existing incinerators in the province are adequate if run
at full and optimum capacity but acknowledges the need for further facilities in future.
Given this market for more incinerators, why are entrepreneurs not falling over themselves to build them particularly with the
cost being a relatively modest R1m to R3m?
The main reason is the extreme difficulty of getting through the legal minefield, says
environmental consultant Brian Gibson. First there are stringent new standards to be met in terms of smokestack
emissions; then there has to be extensive consultation with all interested parties. With medical waste burning a close cousin to toxic waste
disposal, this creates all sorts of problems, with residents anywhere near a planned facility likely to object.
Hanekom is adamant however that the full environmental impact assessment
process should be followed. It certainly doesn't have to be a lengthy process, if
the applicant can supply us with the full relevant technical information, she says. We have an air pollution problem already and we cannot simply
allow something which might add to that. And, of course, the public has a right to articulate its objections about the siting
of a new facility.
(Source: Business Day, 17/8/00)