Cape Town’s bid story

The City of Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014 was coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and supporters.

Litter, refuse and refuse collection design storming: Igniting change

The Social Justice Coalition’s problem statement, outlining the challenges of refuse collection and removal in the townships.

Cape Town’s Informal Settlements

“The lived experience of people in informal settlements is a dehumanising defiance of the constitutional and moral obligations that require the state to treat every person as having equal dignity and rights. Uncollected rubbish, floating faeces and the ever-present threat of crime are constants in the lives of people such as Nomlungisi Qezo and her family, residing in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements… Her demands are simple – clean and safe sanitation, regular refuse collection, and tarred roads with electricity.”[1]

There are roughly 230 Informal Settlements in the City of Cape Town. Approximately 30% of the City’s households – almost one million people – live in inadequate housing and depressed physical environments. With a housing backlog of at least 334 000 requests and only 8 500 new housing opportunities per annum, it is evident that it will take many decades to provide houses to all those in need[2]. This will be further delayed due to the approximately 50 000 people who enter the City each year, many of whom will seek residence in informal settlements[3]. This high rate of urbanisation makes the realisation of increased access to basic services today a priority in order to avoid an even bigger backlog in the future.

Litter, Refuse and Refuse Collection

In an interview with the Cape Times newspaper on 14 May, Cape Town Executive Mayor Patricia De Lille, slammed the city and some officials for failure to monitor refuse collection and to keep poor areas clean, saying more developed areas like the city centre were being prioritised. Despite Cape Town having received accolades for being a clean city, the Mayor pointed out that this was not reflected in certain communities[4].

Refuse collection is a critical component in ensuring that communities are clean and safe. Failure to adequately collect and dispose of refuse leads to the spread of disease, pests such as rats, contamination of water sources, and blockage of sewerage systems.

Informal Settlements can in part be characterised by high levels of visible and unhygienic litter. There are multiple factors that contribute to this. Refuse is often collected irregularly, residents are not briefed on the collection system, and there is little recourse for complaints as refuse collection is outsourced to contractors who have little interest in reporting their own failure to perform their duties to the City.

Existing Service Delivery Agreements with refuse collection contractors also requires them to undertake street sweeping, litter picking, illegal dumping removal, and cleaning of all public areas in the entire demarcated area. This is demonstrably not taking place in the vast majority of informal settlements.

At street level there is an absence of a sense of ownership, a lack of convenience in discarding of refuse, illegal dumping, stray dogs and rodents scattering refuse by tearing open refuse bags, flooding that also scatters refuse, the absence of a secure space to store refuse prior to collection, a sense of powerlessness given the past, present and perceived future levels of litter, a 'tragedy of the commons' scenario where individual attempts to change the situation seem futile etc.

At present refuse collection in the majority of Cape Town’s informal settlements is aided by the placement of unaltered shipping containers on sidewalks and thoroughfares. Residents are required to walk, some for quite a distance, to the containers to discard of their refuse. Prior to this step however residents have no convenient and secure space to store their refuse. In the Cape Times article Mayor De Lille stated, which impacts on this lack of convenient and secure storage: "We can't give one household one wheelie bin. This will be a budgetary issue because we will have to buy more wheelie bins."

The unaltered shipping now-refuse-collection containers are closed and locked in the late afternoon, and often remained locked for days resulting in garbage pilling up on the sidewalks, close to homes.

These containers are placed on sidewalks and thoroughfares to increase ease of refuse collection by the City of Cape Town's contracted solid waste removal companies. However, these thoroughfares are also the most convenient for reticulation services, which means that these refuse containers often sit close to communal water sources. This has severe health implications. (The Khayelitsha Health District for instance has the highest infant mortality rate in the City of Cape Town at 34.85 deaths per 1000 - 40% higher than the citywide average. In a recent public letter, three acclaimed pediatric experts attributed this to poor sanitary conditions in informal settlements.[5])

A lack of convenient and secure means to store individual household refuse, the pilling up of garbage bags outside locked shipping containers and the easy access to refuse when the unaltered containers are open leads to rodent infestations and problems with stray dogs.

Nomasinla Boki, a resident of 'Island' (situated between a highway and a blocked drainage canal) in Khayelitsha's TR Section, says her daughter Anathi first experienced a rat bite, on the mouth, when she was just six months old.

"She was bitten again when she was one year old… They eat our furniture, and when it is raining they run inside the house. When they walk it's like someone is dragging something inside the house. They even jump on top of our beds when we're asleep and we can’t even see them because we don't have electricity."[6]

When the refuse-collection containers are open, there is also nothing that stops young children from entering the containers. This puts them at risk of gastrointestinal diseases and dangerous contact with rodents and stray dogs. According to MAYCO member JP Smith, in July 2011, there are "at least" 230 000 stray dogs in the Cape Town Metropolitan Area[7].

Refuse collection - the emptying of the containers, is also not ideal. Individual bags are carried out of the containers by hand, which is time consuming and places employees of the solid waste removal companies at unnecessary risk of ill health.

Clearly numerous factors impact on the state of litter, refuse and refuse collection in Cape Town's Informal Settlements - factors that negatively impact on the lived experience and dignity of residents. A solution, although focused would have to consider the contractual responsibilities of current City mandated contractors, improved oversight by city officials, the potential for social audits of services rendered by active citizens, practical and concrete interventions that redefine the relationship people have with their refuse, practical steps that would allow solutions to start with and from a "clean-slate", so to speak, and solutions that residents can take ownership of.

[1] (Click here to access)
[2] City of Cape Town. Water Services Development Plan for the City of Cape Town 2011/2012 – 2015/16
[3] City of Cape Town. Water Services Development Plan for the City of Cape Town 2011/2012 – 2015/16
[4] (Click here to access)
[5] Loening, W., Kibel, M. and Reynolds, L., ‘Informal settlements at high risk’, 30 June 2011, accessible at: (Click here to access) or professionals-endorse-sjc-campaign-for-clean-safe-sanitation (Click here to access)
[6] (Click here to access)
[7] (Click here to access)