How to make waste work

Letting off steam: Eco-ambassador Russell Baloyi is determined to make people realise there is value in waste. (Photo: Gustav Butlex)

Letting off steam: Eco-ambassador Russell Baloyi is determined to make people realise there is value in waste. (Photo: Gustav Butlex)

As a young man, Russell Baloyi tackled a large environmental waste company near Etwatwa on the East Rand because its practices were far from savoury. It was transporting waste through the township, there was a terrible smell and the hazardous waste site was too close to residential areas.

Baloyi and a few other young people managed to change the way things were done, and for this and other environmental justice work he won a 1998 Weekly Mail & Guardian Greening the Future Award.  

Seventeen years later, his youthful zeal has not burnt out; it has merely been tempered by practical experience. Standing beside an illegal sand mine that has been turned into an illegal refuse dump near Etwatwa and listening to his plan of action to handle the problem, it’s clear his concern about the environment is still strong. He has a clear understanding of how to work at both policy level and practically, to make a real difference. 

Baloyi started his professional career with the Midrand Eco City project in Ivory Park, where he helped to establish a local economy based on sustainable development principles. 

Local communities were educated in waste management, growing organic vegetables and general eco-friendly living.  

The project became an official showcase of the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development hosted in Johannesburg in 2002. 

From there, Baloyi moved into other government projects, becoming an energy and environment advisor for the South African Local Government Association and the Indalo Yethu campaign, a national awareness-raising project run by the department of environmental affairs. 

“In both these arenas I was able to be practical as well as influence policy on critical sustainability issues involving energy, water, biodiversity and waste management,” he says. 

Working with municipalities, he is currently involved in assessing the finalists for the annual Greenest Municipality awards, which aim to stimulate eco-friendly practices at municipal level. 

In 2004 Baloyi was chosen to participate in the Clinton Democracy Fellowship and was sent to the United States for a 12-week training course.  

There he was enthused by the City Year programme, which enables young people to take a gap year and work in their communities.  

He now helps with the training of City Year service leaders in nine Gauteng primary schools. They conduct green audits of schools and help them to implement improvement projects around water, energy consumption and waste. 

“I want to contribute towards positive, conscious citizenship and we need to focus on young people,” says Baloyi. 

His heart lies in working on a practical level with people and he is an affable eco-ambassador. As he drives around from project to project, he stops and leaps out of the car to talk to a waste collector, then a school principal, and later to stride around an illegal dumping site where he is concerned that children will swim in filthy pools where rainwater has collected. 

He stops at Joubert Park in the Johannesburg city centre, where he was involved with conceptualising the Greenhouse Project, designed to demonstrate sustainable living practices in the urban environment such as permaculture and rainwater harvesting.

Frustrations with bureaucracy and a need for real action led him to start his own business, called EnviDev, in 2008 with a group of like-minded people. During the build-up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the notion of “Greening 2010” was big, and his company trained environmental awareness officers all over the country to work at the stadiums. 

“I got huge practical experience during 2010,” he says. 

One of his main focus areas now is waste collection and recycling. “The key to dealing with waste is to grow the culture of finding value in it,” he says. “We need to make people realise there is a living to be made and that waste collectors have a valuable role to play.” 

He works with a group of people in Alexandra who started a waste collection business called Lesedi Manufacturing Primary Co-operative in 2012.  

They operate from a building which is made of recycled wood and collect plastic, glass, metal and car tyres for re-use.  

Zoleka Ntshololo and Mercy Letsholo, business partners in the project, say its impact on the community is huge. More than 100 waste collectors are associated with the centre and, unlike some other collection points, Lesedi is determined to treat them as valued clients.  

“We see that through making waste valuable Alexandra is now a cleaner place,” says Ntshololo. 

Baloyi is involved in a similar project in Etwatwa, called Katlego Recycling Co-operative. “We have plastic bags flying around like flowers,” he says as he walks around the building supplied by Buyisa-e-Bag (bring back the bag), a government initiative that came about through the levy placed on plastic bags. 

Felix Mahlangu is a partner in the Katlego co-operative and he plans to change the local recycling market by making it profitable for collectors who struggle to sell their recyclables. 

“We behave ethically and give the best price to the waste collectors,” says Baloyi. “My hope is that more areas will take on this model.”