/ 3 September 2021

Circular economy thinking can transform South Africa’s waste into treasure

Kate Stubbs
Kate Stubbs

South Africa’s waste sector and the future thereof may seem inopportune given other economic priorities, but its populace generates 122 million-tonnes of waste per annum, which can have a massive negative impact on the economy if not managed correctly. In fact, this is about R25.2-billion worth of waste being generated; sadly, about 90% of this waste ends up in landfill sites.

They say one man’s waste is another man’s treasure and when we look at waste today, this couldn’t be truer regarding the development of a circular economy in South Africa. 

The circular economy as an answer

The “circular economy” model is a relatively new concept; however, as a reformative system, it offers significant opportunities to deliver on more inclusive economic growth, which includes job opportunities and positive environmental practices that are directly required for sustainability in the country. This occurs by stripping out all unnecessary waste materials, reducing the consumption of energy and raw materials and allowing these materials, energy and resources to be fed back into the cycle. 

There are without doubt many ways that companies can optimise their own waste streams for use in other industries. This will create not just cost savings and revenue generation, but also — very critically — it will protect the environment and increase economic activity and opportunity.

Impact of waste

Waste as a universal issue presents major challenges that affect human health and livelihood, as well as the environment and ultimately the economy. As such, with over 90% of waste being discarded or burned, especially in low-income countries — where many valuable resources are lost — it becomes crucial for the industry to explore innovative and sustainable solutions, with rapid growth and resilience at the forefront of its decisions. Promoting circular economy thinking challenges the status quo and encourages a “nothing wasted” mindset. 

South Africa has a zero waste to landfill goal by 2030, but this is certainly ambitious. It aims to divert 90% of waste from landfills using a “whole system” of recycling, reuse, recovery and beneficiation technologies. These will add value and have the potential to create numerous environmental, social and economic opportunities for South Africans. If a zero-waste sustainable country is to be achieved, then — at the source — waste needs to be managed effectively to ensure it is useful, to drive the new normal in waste management. 

Driving broad awareness in SA  

Consumers are beginning to adopt the “nothing wasted” mindset and are ever more concerned about product sustainability, pushing businesses and the waste industry to innovate and effectively repurpose waste into something that is useful, but also something that enables cost-saving opportunities for these organisations. We are seeing a strong drive towards this reformative, restorative and regenerative system. 

The legislation impacting the waste sector 

The government wants to redirect waste from landfills and new laws have been legislated, with regulations being rolled out to clean up South Africa to reduce the negative environmental and health impacts caused by waste. For example, the New Extended Producer Responsibility Act (EPR) is being implemented, wherein companies are required to take responsibility for the packaging waste of their products following the sale thereof. 

This ensures that from the production stage the producer is already putting strategies in place to minimise, reuse, recycle and recover resource materials from the product’s inception. This reduces the throw-away mindset and promotes resilience and long-term sustainability for the local waste sector. Encouraging global standards and tackling them with a long-term view will take South Africa’s waste industry into a green and profitable future.

Going forward, it is imperative that we consider and instil a complete culture change around waste. This can be done by adopting an all-inclusive view, with innovative and best practice for waste transformation. It’s a collaborative effort, from government to corporate South Africa to individual citizens. Together, we can significantly reduce the waste ending up in landfills, but it will require creativity, collaboration, innovation, dedication, and a changed mindset to enable the circular economy model to build a resilient and sustainable future for us all. Kate Stubbs is Marketing Director at Interwaste

Visit https://www.interwaste.co.za/