Cape Town Sustainability: Circular Economy Solutions

In 2017, Cape Town witnessed its worst drought of the century, having received the lowest rainfall since 1933.

Day Zero had arrived, with water levels in dams at less than 10%. By February 2018, increased restrictions limited daily water usage to 50 litres per person.

The city of Cape Town, legislative capital of South Africa witnessed a population growth of 71% in the two decades from 1995. At present, it is the second most populous city in South Africa with 4.1 million residents.

Cape Town’s years-long drought has been a lesson to water-intensive cities across the world, to utilize resources efficiently.


The water scarcity observed in Cape town is only the tip of the iceberg; an effect of the poor water management and water pollution issues that the city already faces.


Organic and inorganic pollution and littering of Cape Town’s storm and freshwater systems pose a threat to its biodiversity and human health.

Cape Town’s freshwater system (State of the Environment Report 2018)

Factors such as bacterial contamination, inadequate wastewater treatment, sewage overflows, illegal disposal of industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff are responsible for contamination of freshwater bodies.

In 2016, 10 out of 14 river systems and 9 out of 13 wetlands exhibited eutrophic or hypertrophic characteristics.

Trophic tendencies in Cape Town rivers (State of the Environment Report 2018)

  •  Less  than half of all rivers had achieved 80% adherence to the intermediate contact guideline by the Department of Water and Sanitation.


Coastal water quality is impacted by several sources of bacterial pollution such as E. Coli, mainly from overflows in the sewage reticulation network, wastewater discharge from wastewater treatment works, and stormwater contaminated with household waste and animal faeces.

  • 31 out of 90 sampling sites along Cape Town’s 307 km long coastline were found to be polluted. 11 of these spots were found to be chronically polluted, having had poor water quality for the past five years.
  • 45% of the 49 testing sites along False bay failed to meet the water standards. Pharmaceutical compounds and industrial chemicals were found in the bodies of fish.
  • 6 out of 15 sampling sites along the Atlantic coast were found with poor water quality.


The State of the Environment report of 2016 reports on 17 of the 26 wastewater treatment plants in Cape Town, achieving an overall compliance of 85% with DWS standards.

In spite of this data, it is suspected that millions of litres of sewage are being dumped into the ocean from pipelines at Camps Bay, Hout Bay and Mouille Point.

According to a report, the sewage only undergoes a preliminary treatment where it is passed through a sieve to remove solid objects. 

As of 2016:

The Camps Bay sewage outfall spews out 2.4 million litres of sewage every day.

The Mouille point releases 28.4 million litres of sewage in a year.

The Hout Bay outfall spews 5.7 million litres of sewage per day.


Cape Town, with its Mediterranean climate, has a history of water scarcity in the early 2000s.

The city began experiencing poor rainfall in 2015, following good rainfall in the previous years, possible onset by the El-Nino patterns and climate change. Water levels in the City’s dams hit 50%.

By May 2017, even with increasing restrictions on water consumption, water levels in the dam had hit a record 10%, with the arrival of Day Zero. By 2018, water consumption restrictions had gone from 100 to 87 to 50 litres per capita per day.

The reasons for the water crisis are attributed to drought conditions, poor water management, and failure of the administration to set up proper water related infrastructure.


Cape Town is home to 9,600 species of flora, out of which 70% is endemic.

At present, over two-thirds of the natural vegetation is classified as endangered or critically endangered, 300 of which are threatened with global extinction.


The city does not yet have a climate change monitoring system in place. However, it does have a GHG inventory.

Cape Town’s carbon footprint was found to be 5.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015.

Coal-based electricity generation represents a disproportionate 64%  of the carbon emissions of the city, followed by petrol and diesel making up 30%.


Khayelitsha, situated in Cape Town, is one of the largest slums in the world with a population of 391,749, living on an average income of R20,000 ($1872) per family a year.

Cape Town is also home to a large number of destitute illegal immigrants from neighbouring African countries, plagued by limited education, unemployment and substance abuse.

Social inequalities are very prominent in this city, with separate upmarket neighbourhoods and slums like Santini and Flamingo Crescent. 


The City of Cape Town’s administration has attempted to incorporate resource management by introducing new strategies and linking residents to private organizations.

Coastal Waters

Electricity Consumption

  • A reduction in electricity consumption due to rising electricity costs and energy efficiency campaigns have resulted in 4.11% lower carbon emissions from 2012-15.
  • To enable consumption of sustainable energy, the city allows residential and commercial consumers to sell electricity through small-scale embedded solar energy generation programs.
  • The city also runs an Electricity Savings Campaign to reduce city wide electricity consumption.

Wastewater Management

  • The Fisantekraal treatment works’ installation in 2012 introduced the ultraviolet disinfection and a zero-discharge policy, where all the recycled water was used in agriculture, schools, sports clubs, farms, industries and commercial developments.
  • The Water Conservation and Water Demand Management Strategy involved public awareness, stepped water tariffs to encourage savings, free-of-charge plumbing in poor households, training of unemployed individuals as community plumbers, and technical interventions to minimise water losses.

Reuse and Recycle

  • GreenCape is a sector development organization focused on stimulating the green economy, a part of the Wastern Cape Industrial Symbiosis waste exchange program. It hosts a network of home composting programs, recycling bins for lease, waste education in schools, waste-to-art markets and a waste Education and Recycling Program.
  • Since the City does not offer a recycling service, private recyclers are promoted.

At present, 64% of the Biodiversity network of Cape Town has been conserved.


Mvula Trust is the largest Non-Governmental Organisation supporting Water and Sanitation Development in South Africa. It works with underprivileged communities and facilitates service delivery partnerships between these communities and their municipalities.

The Haven Night Shelter provides temporary shelter, physical care, social welfare and family  

reunification services to adult homeless persons in the Western Cape.


Companies spent an estimated R10.2 billion on corporate social investment (CSI) in South Africa in 2019, with an emphasis on education, food security, health and community development.

 Woolworths Holdings Limited is a South Africa-based multinational retail company that owns the South African retail chain Woolworths, and Australian retailers David Jones and Country Road Group. It spent a total of R1,669 million on CSI in the period 2017-19, emphasising on education and food security.

Anglo American plc is a South African multinational mining company, It spent a total of R2,256 million on corporate social investments from 2017-19, in education, water and sanitation, health, environment, disaster management, and community development.


Globally, the economy would benefit $2 trillion a year from a circularity.

1. Economic Benefits

  • Substantial Resource Savings
  • Innovation Stimulus
  • Economic Growth
  • Growth of Employment

2. Environmental Benefits

  • Less greenhouse gases
  • Vital air, soil and water bodies
  • Conservation of nature reserves


The Western Cape Industrial Symbiosis Program (WISP) is a circular economy model that connects companies with businesses and unused or residual resources, such as water, logistics, expertise and materials. 

In five years of its operation, it was able to:

  • Divert 27,436 tonnes of waste from landfills.
  • Reduce GHG emissions by 46,700 tonnes.
  • Generate R43.0.8 million as financial benefits through additional revenue, cost savings and private investments.
  • Create 143 jobs in the economy.

Over the following three years, it is expected to generate 64,500 metric tonnes of CO2 savings. The WISP has catalysed the development of more programs in the region, hence promising greater employment, environmental benefits and revenue.


ACT Powai: Making a Zero Waste Economy

The Earth5R team has successfully implemented circular economy solutions to return plastic waste back into the economy.

Cleanup at Powai Lake, Earth5R

  • Ragpickers were employed to collect waste from the buildings in Mumbai.
  • The plastic waste was sent to a community waste recycling centre, where it was shredded into tiny bits which was later on converted into pellets.
  • The pellets were used to make benches and toys, which went back into the circular economy.

In addition to plastic, cloth waste was donated to nearby informal settlements to make dolls. Domestic waste was converted into compost to be used in plantations. With this program, 250 Mumbai buildings were converted into absolute Zero Waste.


Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.

Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes and create social and environmental impact.

Reported by Ankita Nambiar, edited by Aastha Dewan