The idea for Marianhill came about the mid-1990s before the Kyoto Protocol was even signed. Gunning for a conservancy status for the landfill from the start, e’Thekwini instituted a meaningful consultative process with residents and civil society.
Large waste removal vehicles travel to the smallest landfill of the e’Thekwini Municipality, located 31kms outside Durban, the capital city of the KwaZulu-Natal province. The Mariannhill Landfill only receives 450 tonnes of general municipal waste from the surrounding areas of Pinetown, Westville, Queensborough and Kloof. As these vehicles enter the site, a sign welcomes visitors to enjoy the birds and animals in the grasslands, forests and wetlands.
Bucking every waste management trend in South Africa, the Mariannhill Landfill Conservancy is a dump with a difference. At Mariannhill there are no unpleasant odours or a speck of litter strewn about. The site is separated from the surrounding middle-income and low-cost housing areas by only 200 metres of indigenous plants and trees.
Mariannhill combines landfill naturalistic engineering with their daily-operations and rehabilitates the site as it fills to capacity. Its ingenious Closed Loop System makes this all possible. The landfill consists of several cells, which is filled one at a time. Before any waste is deposited in these cells, the earth is excavated and the cell is prepared with a four-tier barrier system that protects the soil and water table from any pollutants.
Its Leachate Treatment Plant treats up to 30 cubic metres of leachate daily to a re-usable standard, lessening the load on the municipal sewer. Leachate is the by-product of decomposing waste dampened by rainfall. It causes the awful odours associated with land-filling. The plant also supplies water for dust control on site and irrigates vegetated areas, decreasing the load on municipal drinking water supply.
The Plant Rescue Unit, a vital component for the effective rehabilitation of Mariannhill, is a large nursery that salvages the indigenous vegetation along with the soil removed when cells are constructed. After cells are filled, the incubated plants and top soil are used to rehabilitate other areas in the metropolitan which saves the municipality up to R3 million.
Mariannhill demonstrates that waste can be lucrative. All landfills leak the potent greenhouse gas – methane – amongst other gases, into the atmosphere. After meeting with the World Bank in 2002, e’Thekwini implemented a Clean Development Mechanism strategy at the landfill and used its methane gas to generate electricity for the area.
Mariannhill’s landfill gas to electricity project was the first of its kind in Africa. Producing up to 950kWh of electricity, enough to power approximately 500 households, as a result of this, e’Thekwini will earn R5 million over the next decade. e’Thekwini replicated this initiative at their much larger landfill, Bisasar Road, which receives 4 000 tonnes of waste daily.
Political will weathered the storm of requesting a seemingly inflated amount for the start up costs of Mariannhill. Setting a precedent is never easy, but e’Thekwini convinced its City Council that the total cost for Mariannhill is not higher than traditional sites (keeping in mind that the conventional method is NOT the way landfills should be run).
Instead of putting out a large tender to businesses to rehabilitate a site that negatively impacts the surrounding environment, Mariannhill changes the approach by spending money constructively throughout its lifespan to create an environmental dream. Municipalities in South Africa now have no excuse to continue designing landfills in an antiquated way.
Managers at Mariannhill admit that the dearth of qualified engineers in South Africa is biggest challenge to run such a sophisticated venture. This deficit hinders replication regardless of political support. The country’s education system simply has to produce more engineers and retain them.
In addition, the private sector must play a bigger role to assist rural municipalities with implementing lessons from Mariannhill. People around the world and some municipalities around the country have enlisted e’Thekwini’s expertise to do just that.
Today, Mariannhill functions as a green lung for the city of Durban and we need to create more of these around South Africa. Landfills are assets rather than obstacles and Durban has shown the way. Every week, between 60 and 120 students flock to Mariannhill to learn about waste management, reducing waste, promoting biodiversity and conservation. Wild life flourishes in its 50 hectares of protected land which is a registered national birding site, 187 different bird species have been spotted by environmentalists and hikers who welcome the preservation of other endangered species. Families travel to the site, picnicking on Sundays and barbequing at this recreational area cum operational landfill.
Can you imagine that? The archaic methods that account for the smelly, septic eyesores that characterise most of the 1200 dumps in South Africa can be a thing of the past.
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