Hills are alive with generations of waste

A bulldozer pushes mounds of waste up the refuse hill of perhaps one of the most scenic landfill sites in the world as gulls fly above, looking out onto a view of False Bay. The blue bags are filled with litter from the streets and informal settlements.

If you were to stand on Boyes Drive and look out across the vista you would notice some rather large hills rising over the flat land across the road from the beach. The hills were built bit by bit by you and me, from what we have so unthinkingly thrown away.

The Coastal Park Landfill, off Baden Powell Drive, is one of three landfills for the whole of the City of Cape Town – from Gordon’s Bay to Cape Point to Atlantis.

Trying to get into the site is like playing dodgem on a Brobdingnagian scale. Hulking trucks barrel in one after the other as staff valiantly direct the tide of relentless, titanic traffic.

Waste only stops because the site closes down for the day, says Shaheed Kannemeyer, Coastal Park Landfill’s senior superintendent. So that’s six days of waste, and they sometimes have to open on a Sunday, for example, if there has been a fire in an informal settlement and the burnt remains of people’s homes have to be dumped somewhere.

This is part of what is building the mountains – or hills, as they prefer to say – of waste. Eventually, the hills will be 45m high. This is in line with the permit granted by the national Department of Environment Affairs when the site opened in the 1980s, allowing a maximum height and footprint.

Jo-Anne Petersen, the City’s disposal specialist, says the site has about another eight and a half years left. After that, it’s all a bit uncertain.

The City has plans for a future site in Kalbaskraal, 50km north-east of Cape Town and 20km south of Malmesbury, but this is part of a legal battle, as the potential neighbours are none too happy.

Nonetheless, the rehabilitation of the Coastal Park Landfill has all been budgeted for, and at vast expense.

Ms Petersen says, ultimately, the hills will be scraped, shaped and hydroseeded (planting using a slurry of seed and mulch) so that in the end they will look like large dunes, blending in with the environment. The City will continue monitoring the landfill for 30 years after its closure.

Part of the rehabilitation is already starting and the clue is a glorious term used by waste disposal aficionados: beneficiation. The City has already advertised tenders for a company to grind rubble into small, usable bits for resale or re-use, to “beneficiate” it. Clay from the rubble will be used to rehabilitate the site in the future. Staff use the word “beneficiation” often and with practised ease.

All waste from streets, beaches, houses and businesses, except for hazardous waste or bulk food, for example from supermarkets whose fridges have gone down, goes to the landfill. That’s on average 30000 tons of general waste and 70000 tons of builders’ rubble delivered at this site each month – no wonder the mountains, sorry, hills, grow and grow.

Waste is vomited out of trucks, scraped flat and then covered daily with 15cm of inert waste – builders’ rubble from the stockpiles – to stop the flies and rodents.

The rubble is also used to stabilise the slopes and to fill in the roads that the trucks take ever higher to drop off their waste.

The wastewater plant next door is one of the world’s top birding spots. The sky is awash with birds: sacred ibis and gulls dip and soar. And they peck with rapid darts in the waste between the massive moving machinery.

Birdwatchers say they see a greater variety of gulls here than anywhere else, says Ms Petersen, whose eagle eye picked out a raptor sitting on a post.

Pans of brown liquid dot the site: it’s leachate, a product of waste’s decomposing process.

“All those insecticide tins, the Handy Andy, dog poo that is thrown in the bin turns into a toxic mix as it decomposes,” says Ms Petersen.

In the past, dumps didn’t need to be lined and people dumped stuff with gay abandon. This is no longer the case and lined dumps now piggyback on unlined dumps, with a whole system of pipes and drains.

The specially designed landfill takes this contaminated liquid and funnels it into a leachate pond. This is pumped to the water treatment works, conveniently next door, for treatment. Samples of the leachate are sent away regularly for analysis. It’s all part of the regular auditing the site has to undergo so that the environment can be managed.

Marching across the site are vertical pipes that help to monitor the groundwater and methane gas, a by-product of waste decomposition.

“Within the next year or so we will be harvesting methane gas up to the flaring stage,” says Ms Petersen. “A feasibility study has been done to show that the project is viable.”

So next time you fling something in a bin or drop something in the street, look across to the oceanside Cape Flats, becoming ever more hilly, and know you had a hand in it

The City has various programmes to divert waste from landfill. Its Think Twice recycling programme collects recycled waste in some areas and encourages home composting – you can go online to join the list for a free composting kit.

The City also has an integrated waste exchange platform where recycling businesses can register and residents can locate recycling businesses in their area.