The re-utilized resource movement (previously “waste”)
Most of the world’s waste is currently managed by indiscriminate dumping at landfill sites. Not only is this a messy practice, but it is outdated in a world experiencing space and natural resource scarcity. Moreover, it discards the economic potential of various waste streams and places undue pressure on available land at the expense of dumping. The reality is that we throw away too much of what we produce, often thinking it is useless to us. Whilst this may hold true on an individual level, it does not mean that what we throw away has no value to the world-at-large.
With this said, there is an emerging recognition that our current strategy of waste management is inefficient and costly. Some progressive and entrepreneurial moves are beginning to improve waste management strategies. These maximise recycling and the use of waste in other industries, promoting industrial symbiosis. Firms are increasingly being made to internalise their wastage costs, both through improved policy and economic considerations. Efficiency is therefore promoted while decreasing the loss of resources through the production process.
The European Union (EU) is at the forefront of this move, having strict standards on waste disposal and a social conscience that is pushing for minimised wastage. As such, the bloc is currently leading in the ability to avoid landfill usage, with up to 80% of all waste either being recycled or used in other processes. In some instances, EU member states are pushing the envelope of innovation through gasification technology that has turned Norway into a net-importer of waste for its waste-to-energy programme.
South Africa on the other hand is lagging in this regard. This is due to a combination of various development priorities competing for limited state attention, an uninformed public, relatively poor policy and accountability frameworks, and a lack of coordination within the industry as a whole. In 2012, it was estimated that the domestic economy lost R17 billion worth of resources to landfill sites. A pressing need for innovation in coordination and management technologies therefore exists within South Africa.
Waste management at an industrial level is somewhat easy to handle. A factory produces a relatively steady and uniform supply of waste, so transferring it to another factory where it is used as an input is reasonably straightforward. This is a classic example of industrial symbiosis, where one firm’s waste is another’s input. The supplier benefits from decreased waste management costs, sometimes even receiving payment for the stream, and the user benefits from a cheap and steady supply of material. Setting up associated industries based on waste flows is an opportunity that is currently being implemented overseas, but is still waiting to be harnessed locally. National and regional programmes such as the NISP, WISP, GISP and KISP are, however, being set up but could be enhanced with a number of entrepreneurial interventions.
Managing municipal waste is where it gets tricky. Most homes do not separate their rubbish, neither do most small businesses or light manufacturing. Here waste is thrown in the bin and sent to the dump. This creates a problem. Separating mixed waste is a costly, dirty and potentially dangerous affair. So more often than not, the waste is simply burnt. However, with increasing economic, environmental and social pressure, a global trend of turning municipal waste into energy is emerging. In South Africa, this move is being spearheaded by Interwaste, who are in the process of setting up the first domestic waste to energy plant in Germiston, Gauteng. The idea is to take refuse, shred it, turn it into compacted pellets and then burn this as an alternative to coal. While this may not be the most responsible way of dealing with trash, it is at least better than being burnt without generating any electricity, as currently is the norm. Smaller scale waste to energy applications are also gradually being taken up by industry – BMW currently uses a biogas generator to partially power their Rosslyn plant. The gas is produced using manure from local cattle farmers and large quantities of industrial paper waste. Other examples include the emergence of small scale bio-diesel manufacturers who utilize used cooking oil from large fast food retailers.
Despite the seemingly slow pace of progress, the waste sector is not void of innovation. Rubicon Global, a technology company based in the USA, was recently launched as a global waste optimisation service provider. The company offers a coordination service that helps reduce the costs a firm carries in the disposal of waste produced through its business. This is done by using cloud based technology that can be accessed through a mobile phone, linking the producers of waste with recycles and other users. In turn, their service helps increase rates of recycling and decrease overall levels of waste that reach the landfill stage.
MyWaste’s mobile and web application is another innovative technology solution that uses a unique approach to residential waste flow optimisation and has a wide reach in countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The calendar format of the software helps to enhance the way municipalities share collection schedules and recycling information with residents. The simplest and most useful feature of this widely used app is to help residents understand “what goes where”. The system does, however, rely quite heavily on local municipalities having existing and efficient waste management systems in place. A little closer to home, another “MyWaste” allows any waste producer the opportunity to find recyclers and consumers based on their location. Tuffy has brought this location-based search to consumer’s smart-phones. However, these platforms are only effective if there is significant uptake by the public – and there is still a way to go in promoting this awareness.
From a policy perspective, South Africa is slowly building a more dynamic approach to waste management. The sector is significantly legislated with a number of laws that cover the three levels of government (i.e. municipal; provincial and national). Originally, the legislation looked to regulate the handling of waste to ensure proper processing and treatment of all refuse including harmful and hazardous substances. However, a number of drivers have spurred recent updates in regulations to provide an enabling policy environment for service providers to process and recycle waste. Such drivers have included increased awareness of the environmental imperative of recycling, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the ability for informal or formal businesses to monetize waste streams, and need for government to be more efficient in the use of limited landfill sites. The local policy landscape is still developing and will continue to shape the entrepreneurial solutions that emerge to for this sector.
The reutilisation of resources in South Africa is a massive entrepreneurial opportunity. According to the Department of Science and Technology’s National Waste Roadmap , in 2013 the South African waste sector employed approximately 29 000 people and was worth about R15 billion – around 0.51% of the country’s GDP. In 2011, we generated about 108 million tons of waste: 59 million tons of general waste; 48 million tons of unclassified waste; and 1 million tons of hazardous waste. It is estimated that if the sector were fully developed, it could contribute between 1% and 1.5% of GDP.
Overall, there is a growing corporate, political and social awareness of the costs that inefficient waste management imposes on society and the environment. A move is slowly being made towards more integrated and streamlined systems, which reduce the amount of waste by promoting recycling, waste to energy production and symbiotic industrial relationships. The opportunities are up for grabs, it just depends on who is going to offer a useful service or technology to help make it happen.