The South African waste management industry


The South African waste management industry is constantly developing and is the most efficient within the African continent. However, current statistics highlight that South Africans generate 108 million tonnes of waste per annum, equating to about R25.2 billion worth of waste dumped, with 90% disposed to landfill sites—which are fast approaching full capacity. Jason McNeil, CEO at Interwaste—a proud Séché company explains.

The challenge we have as a country is how can we convert the estimated R25.2 billion of potential resources into something valuable, for example, raw materials that can be re-used back into the economy? What is the solution, how long will it take and whose role is it to ensure a sustainable waste economy and environment for all?

South African waste producers, waste managers as well as Government are encouraged to invest in ways to help reduce the amount of waste produced, and actively find solutions to re-use, recycle or re-purpose waste.

At the centre of this industry symbiosis, lies innovation. How else can we expect to divert waste from landfill, if there are no alternatives in place? In an effort to not only curb the potential looming waste crisis but also institute enforceable mechanisms to drive change in behaviour, the South African Government has already released (and continues to release) changes to the National Environment Management: Waste Act of 2008 legislation.

This legislation has been primarily developed to reduce the disposal of waste to landfill, and more importantly, encourage our industry to seek alternative and sustainable solutions for waste materials where possible. As such, both businesses and the waste industry are reliant on one another to comply, as well as to find sustainable alternatives for waste disposal – that would previously have gone to landfill. This is where industry symbiosis becomes a reality, one that is beneficial for the circular economy.

Take Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) for example, where dry waste produced is processed through an RDF plant, and converted into an alternative fuel, for further use by the cement kilns as alternative energy thereby reducing the reliance on coal. The opportunities are endless, waste producers can capitalise on innovation and new technologies by engaging with industries to best understand their waste and identify how it can be reused/repurposed better, to ensure compliance and create environmental sustainability.

It is this premise that supports circular economy thinking—a reformative system in which resource input, waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised. This means eliminating unnecessary wastage and waste generation that would traditionally be disposed of at a landfill site. This can only be achieved by optimising resource efficiency through; sustainable product designs, recovery, as well as the re-use and recycling of products—or even energy production, with the systematic approach of the global hierarchy of waste management.

The circular economy is a relatively new concept, however, in the African context, it offers significant opportunities to truly deliver on more inclusive economic growth— including job opportunities and positive environmental practices that are needed for sustainable growth for the continent.

As a reformative system, the circular economy is a model that aims to strip out all unnecessary waste materials, energy losses and related carbon emissions across supply chains—and through integration and innovation, promote closing these gaps to allow materials, energy, and resources to be ‘fed’ back into the cycle. The consensus is that the linear model of the past to make-use-dispose must be done away with—and that a more sustainable eco-cycle can be achieved, through long-term design and planning, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and upcycling.

While adoption of this thinking is still in its infancy, there are success stories that can be seen where through innovation and thinking differently new product streams, and even new industries, come to the fore.

For example, the drive to divert waste from landfills has directly resulted in waste disposers or management companies merging into reprocessing industries, with a significant focus being placed on reuse, recycle or repurpose. In turn, this is causing manufacturers to rethink how they design their products, as well as the type of resources they use to make their products of today, that will become the raw materials of tomorrow.

Additionally, in cases where recycling and reuse are not possible—such as with food and other waste that cannot be safely repurposed for consumption—we are seeing growth in safe destruction facilities, as well as the waste-to-energy space. In fact, waste-to-energy plants offer a unique opportunity to tackle critical challenges, create lasting sustainable development across Africa; power generation, and sustainable waste management, in order to reduce reliance on landfills.

The reality is that the results of this shift in thinking and manufacturing will be challenging to achieve if there is not a significant, holistic change in mindset across the board in terms of our approach to how we handle waste in the country. It is about helping people understand their waste streams, where they go to, how they could be re-used or should be disposed of, and the role we each play in mitigating the impact of such waste. There could be dire consequences for the future resilience and sustainability of cities, especially in developing African regions, if consumers and producers alike don’t change their attitudes regarding waste. This lack of environmental consciousness could lead to not only a waste crisis but also a health, climate and social one.

The good news is that we are already seeing this shift in environmental consciousness locally and we expect that leading into 2020, we will start seeing a much stronger trend towards zero waste to landfill, exploring recycling streams and other avenues of revenue generation through the circular economy model, legislative promulgations that need to be adhered to by the industry, as well as new technologies for waste treatment and recovery.

Further to this, the year ahead is sure to witness a shift in the digital space which offers real opportunity to optimise efficiencies and automate processes. To date, international case studies show that the robotic recycling revolution brings significant cost savings and improved revenue streams. Similarly, the digitisation of waste collection and recycling programmes provide important benefits, where waste-to-energy facilities will benefit— given that they can now automate complex industrial processes. In fact, waste collection and source separation recycling programmes are already digitised in many cities—a direction that the South African industry is preparing to adopt, as well, going forward.

In alignment with new legislation, client sustainability goals and consumer awareness, the South African waste sector has evolved in how we treat and manage our waste. This trend is continuing, and it is an exciting space in which to operate.

Collaboration between corporate South Africa, Government, individual citizens, and waste companies can be a powerful weapon in the fight against environmental degradation, and it is this collaboration, innovation, and consciousness that will drive the country forward—both financially and from a sustainability perspective.

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