The potential of social enterprise for waste management and reduction in South Africa – A literature review

“Maintaining the status quo is not a viable option,” but we can also see that this crisis presents an unprecedented opportunity. We can rethink the choices we have made and commit to achieving something different, a world that is community-centric, ecologically balanced and spiritually fulfilling.”

-David Korten (Living Economies Forum)

Covid-19 has impacted the world, and South Africa, in massive ways and it deserves our undivided attention at the moment. Already vulnerable communities have become even more vulnerable: commenting on the Wave 2 report of the Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), researchers described South Africa’s post-COVID-19 economy as resembling a “post-civil war landscape” with unemployment and hunger at its highest rates ever[1].

Unfortunately, in the background, the fire of climate change raged on. Fanned by strong winds and fueled by hot, dry terrains, record-breaking megafires consumed the American west, burning more than 27 000 square kilometres of land, razing thousands of buildings, and killing at least 37 people[2].

Climate change poses a fundamental threat to places, species and people’s livelihoods. It causes sea levels to rise and oceans to become warmer. It leads to more extreme and unpredictable weather and longer, more intense droughts that threaten crops, wildlife and freshwater supplies.  Yet again, people living in poverty will be hardest hit by global warming and least able to recover and adapt[3].  At this stage we can no longer stop climate change, it is already in motion and our options are to try to mitigate its effects and to adapt to its consequences[4].

An increasing number of studies show that strategies to mitigate climate change present an excellent opportunity to ensure sustainable development and to drive economic growth[5]. While much of the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable growth path lies in the hands of policymakers and heads of industry worldwide, on an everyday basis, the rest of us are best positioned to start contributing to the development of a circular economy and in this way send a message to industry and policy.

A circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Circular systems employ reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system, minimising the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions. This regenerative approach is in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which has a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production.

How much do we waste in South Africa?

South Africa produces an estimated 59 million tonnes of general waste per year, 90% of which ends up in landfills according to STATS SA[6].  Only 13% of metropolitan households self-reported that they sort their waste for recycling, followed by 11% of households across urban areas and 3% of households in rural areas.


STATS SA calculates that it costs R561 per month for a single person to afford a basic but nutrient-rich diet in South Africa?[7] For a household of two adults and four children (the average household size in South Africa), it comes to R3 366 a month. The minimum wage for many South African families is currently R3 000 per month and less.  After paying for transport, electricity, water and other essentials, a daily nutritious meal is hardly affordable.  In fact, almost a quarter of the population goes to bed hungry every night (an average of 12 million people). Yet, in South Africa, 30% of produced food (worth R21.7 million) is wasted every year. This has a triple-negative impact:

“Firstly it is a waste of resources including water and energy that are used along the supply chain in the production, handling and distribution of food;

-secondly, the socio-economic impacts associated with food insecurity; and

-lastly, environmental impacts associated with waste and emissions (including greenhouse gas emissions) generated during the production, harvesting, processing, distribution and disposal of food that is not consumed.”[8]


The primary input to our water resources is rainwater and South Africa’s rainfall, at 490mm per year, is half the world average. Our rainfall is highly seasonal and variable, with greater variability in the dry interior[9]. With low inputs and a large population, South Africa is classified as a water-stressed country.  What is more, the scarce fresh water is decreasing in quality because of an increase in pollution and the destruction of river catchments, caused by urbanisation, deforestation, damming of rivers, destruction of wetlands, industry, mining, agriculture, energy use and accidental water pollution[10].  Climate change will cause South Africa to experience much wetter wet seasons and much drier dry seasons, resulting in an increase of floods and droughts[11].  The issues with water and sanitation in South Africa is complex, but to bring it closer to home: about 37% of our water is lost in municipalities through water supply leakages. In residential areas the average consumption of water is about an average of 233 litres per person per day – the free water allowance is only 25 litres per person per day.


According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africans use between 30kg and 50kg of plastic per person per year, much of which ends up in the marine environment where, over the course of many years it get broken down into micro-plastics, which is consumed by marine life and eventually again by people. Plastics SA says in its National Plastics Recycling Survey 2017 that the industry recycled 334 727 tons – less than half at 43.7% – of all plastics discarded in South Africa. Plastic contributes to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle, from its production to its refining and the way it is managed as a waste product[12].

Dumped waste on the streets of Johannesburg. African News Agency Archives (ANA)

Littering as a symbol of apathy and disillusionment

At DGMT we believe that much of the choke on innovation in South Africa is psychological: for reasons related to years of marginalisation and disempowerment our people have become disillusioned, which is breeding a sense of apathy that we see externalised in social phenomena such as littering or binge drinking for example.  As part of our funding strategy for 2017-2021, we are seeking to find ways to stimulate people, organisations and communities to have a sense of pride and aspiration that will help to further unlock opportunity.

The opportunity of social enterprise for waste management and reduction

Social enterprise, or a business with specific social objectives that serve its primary purpose – seek to maximise profits while maximising benefits to society and the environment, is a business model well suited to give momentum to a transformation process towards a circular economy.  In fact, currently, “some of the most interesting and innovative projects in the emerging circular economy are being led by social enterprises around the world”[13].

“Social enterprises are definitely the business models of the future – they show how we can organise economic activity in ways that respect ecological limits, empower people, and build community capacity”.

Matthew Allen, Social Impact Hub & NACRO incorporating Zero Waste Network.

We were keen to learn more about social enterprises and especially the role that they can play in reducing and managing waste. This is why we commissioned a literature review that aims to answer the following questions:

  • What types and/or examples of social enterprises are currently operating in South Africa with the goal of reducing and managing waste?
    • Are these social enterprises funding their own operations from profit? Does its income allow for growth and innovation?  What is the range of income (for the size of the enterprise)? What are the main expenditures (in terms of infrastructure; human resources and marketing)?
    • How successful are these social enterprises in terms of waste reduction and or waste management?  What are the key success factors; or the main challenges reducing their efficiency?
    • The circular economy emphasises approaches that are locally appropriate, community-driven, and create opportunities for people experiencing disadvantage. To what extent do these social enterprises conform to these ideals?
  • Are there international examples of social enterprises focussing on reducing and managing waste that is not currently active in South Africa, but might be helpful and viable in the South African context?
    • What is the range of income (for the size of the enterprise)? What are the main expenditures (in terms of infrastructure; human resources and marketing)?
    • What are the key success factors and/or the main risks?
    • To what extent can these enterprises be locally appropriate, community-driven, and create opportunities for people experiencing disadvantage in the South African context?

Have a look at what Claire McCann found in the literature, and/or download the document below.





[4] NASA (



[7] STATS SA. National Poverty Line report

[8] The Household Food Waste Disposal Study, 2018



[11] Ibid.




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