Moving SA’s industry towards a Green Economy

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Turning waste into energy: A roadmap for South Africa

The waste sector contributes significantly to the South African economy: it provides tens of thousands of formal and informal jobs and livelihoods. The potential for growth is real, and transforming waste into energy can help relieve some of the biggest headaches of our time — the shortage of landfill space and climate change.

Waste problems can be transformed into energy solutions. New research from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) makes a strong case for putting various waste streams to good use. And, if approached smartly, the process can also help reduce greenhouse gases and slow down climate change.

But can a comprehensive waste-to-energy plan be rolled out at scale in South Africa? The short answer is yes, provided it is done smartly, within an optimal environment. 

After more than two years, the publication of the Waste to Energy Roadmap for South Africa is now imminent. It is the result of a research study on waste and resources management and clean energy by UKZN, in partnership with the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI). 

The study shows ways in which the latest developments in waste-to-energy technology can be harnessed to support the country’s transition towards a decarbonised economy.

It describes 20 alternative waste treatment technologies with potential for micro- to large-scale application that are ready to be introduced into existing waste management infrastructure. It showcases relevant technologies for the effective valorisation and recovery of waste into biogas and energy, while mapping barriers and drivers for uptake at local level. 

Wide consultation

The research team consulted widely with role players in the waste-to-energy sector, culminating in a virtual workshop attended by nearly 50 representatives from local and international policymaking and funding institutions. Initial consultations were conducted over several months and sought to discover opportunities for and levels of success in the waste-to-energy sector. It explored opportunities to turn waste into energy as well as barriers to uptake and the implementation of policies and projects. Individual waste-to-energy technologies and projects formed a large part of the workshop discussions.

Several representatives from organisations such as the Development Bank of Southern Africa, CSIR, South African Local Government Association and the World Bank, interested government departments and other institutions attended the workshop.  

Workshop participants all agreed that role players in the waste-to-energy sector could enjoy great success, provided they join forces and cooperate across sectors, departments and disciplines. In fact, some delegates went as far as warning that unless this sort of cooperation is actively pursued when designing and implementing WtoE policies and projects, they are likely to fail. 

It is important to note that the WtoE RDI Roadmap is still in its development phase; its implementation will be rolled out over months and years to come.
— Linda Cilliers

Rethinking what gets thrown away

Changing how we think about waste opens up many opportunities for innovation. For example, a project that repurposes sawdust manufactures a range of valuable, marketable chemicals, including those used to make the artificial sweetener, Xylitol. Other by-products are pine oil and cellulose fibres.

Using chicken-feather waste, products such as keratin powder for use as a protein can be made, along with other healthcare applications. The feather waste can also be used to make textiles, electronics and cosmetics. 

Paper mill sludge and the fibres from waste tyres can improve the quality of green concrete, and paper sludge destined for incineration or dumping in landfills can also be used to make concrete.

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Sugar industry still seeking greener pastures with biofuels

The troubled sugar industry is pinning its hopes on a government subsidy that will enable it to convert more than a third of its annual output to biofuels. The tax on sugar-sweetened drinks has caused a crisis that’s lowered the demand on the industry from beverage makers, and this has not been helped by an influx of cheap imports. As a result, close to 800 000 tonnes of South African sugar is being exported at a loss every year. Two mills have already been forced to close down and about 10 000 workers have lost their jobs.

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy approved a framework in February last year for sugarcane to be converted in biofuels, which will be blended with motor fuels. Previous attempts to use corn to kick-start a biofuel industry failed because of food security concerns.

The industry says that being allowed to diversify sugarcane for other uses could improve its sustainability. One study shows that by producing 460-million litres of biofuels a year, up to 13 000 jobs could be created and close to R2-billion generated in tax. 

A sweet deal for all 

Scientists have already found that sugar extracted from sugarcane can be easily fermented to produce ethanol, which could help reduce global warming caused by conventional petroleum fuels. Biofuels produced from sugarcane can be used in several alternatives, from synthetic fuels to aviation jet fuel.

The process to convert sugarcane to ethanol is fairly straightforward. The cane stalks are crushed to extract a sugar-rich juice. That juice is then transferred to fermentation tanks where a yeast fermentation reaction is triggered to create ethanol.

The sugar industry is still actively engaging with the government, as well as private and foreign investors, to discuss the policy and investment support mechanisms needed to launch an innovative biofuels project. It could prove to be a sweet deal for all the role players concerned. — Hank Franks

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Circularity: Inside Cape Town’s Waste Sector Plan

Cape Town has set itself some ambitious targets to transform into a resilient and resource-efficient city, specifically when it comes to resource and waste management. One target is to extend the life of its existing landfill space to 2040. This, in turn, requires both a reduction in the waste generated and the diversion of as much waste as possible from landfills. 

While recycling and waste beneficiation is generally pushed as a solution, the need to investigate and implement other solutions is becoming crystal clear — one has only to look at the intensity of the city’s waste challenges and the negative impacts experienced by the recycling industry. 

One of the objectives of Cape Town’s Waste Sector Plan is to speed up waste minimisation. Greater understanding and communication of the circular economy and its benefits can help achieve this. A project to ‘’prepare for acceleration of waste avoidance through circular economy research” is an initiative undertaken in partnership with GreenCape, a non-profit organisation specialising in the green economy. The goal is to help speed up waste avoidance through research that analyses “circular economy initiatives, activities, plans and strategies driving circularity at local government level”. It specifically aims to:

Map existing stakeholders and initiatives that actively drive and support the city’s circular economy;

Develop an inventory of active international and national plans and strategies to promote and embed circular economy principles into its planning;

Provide tangible recommendations to consider when developing the journey towards circular economy planning. 

GreenCape is also working on a material flow analysis of local agri-processing and textile sectors to identify where to unlock circularity in those sectors.
— Linda Cilliers

Fifty/50 Wheelie Bins: A virtuous circle

Cape Town’s Fifty/50 wheelie bin initiative uses material from condemned wheelie rubbish bins to make new ones. This has resulted in millions in cost-savings, while freeing up precious space at landfills, now at a premium in most cities in South Africa. In this way, the initiative contributes to the city’s circular economy. 

Up until 2014, Cape Town used bins made from 100% virgin high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. This material is hardy and durable, but it is not biodegradable and, when it reaches the end of its usefulness, it takes up a substantial amount of landfill airspace if not recycled.

This initiative was one of the waste minimisation interventions that earned the city joint first place in the Local Authority Recycling Innovation category in the Petco awards last year.

GreenCape study

The Fifty/50 wheelie bin initiative was the focus of a case study conducted by GreenCape. The study focuses on building a resilient city through circular public procurement.

It points out that one of the many levers a city can implement to drive circularity at scale is through circular procurement.

“In essence, a circular economy is to preserve natural resources by retaining the quality and value of products, their parts and the materials used to make them. A circular economy also separates the value chains of renewable resources and non-renewable resources, as they require different technologies and methods.”

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Building green for a sustainable future

Rising energy costs, resource insecurity and changing national and international regulations have led to an urgent need for more energy-efficient buildings in South Africa. These changes, driven by global contexts and environmental realities, have also resulted in a greater awareness of “green building” solutions and an increased demand for energy-efficient interventions within the country’s construction sector. 

Green building, also known as green construction or sustainable building, refers to both the physical structure and to the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life cycle. This includes planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and demolition. Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual CO2 emissions; 28% is a result of their building operations and a further 11% stems from building materials.

According to the World Green Building Trends survey, the growth of green building in South Africa currently exceeds that of established sustainability building regions such as Europe, Australia, United States, United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Brazil. The Green Buildings Council of South Africa (GBCSA) is the fastest-growing member of the World Green Building Council, the organisation leading the country’s green revolution. Despite ongoing challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and South Africa’s socioeconomic context, the GBCSA awarded 140 building certifications to local buildings in 2021 alone. 

According to GBCSA, one of the criteria for a building to be considered “green” is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the construction process. Buildings are awarded Green Star points based on project management, indoor environment quality, type of energy used, mobility, water consumption, technologies used and the socioeconomic impact of the project. 

In South Africa, certified new green buildings cover over two million square metres. According to one survey from the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, developers of a sample of 50 certified projects in the country expect their buildings to result in yearly savings of 76-million kilowatt hours — the amount of electricity needed to power 5 300 households for a year. Savings in electricity, water consumption and waste disposal at these buildings also have a significant impact on reducing the construction sector’s carbon footprint.  

The research further estimates annual carbon emissions savings of 115-million kg — the equivalent of having 28 000 fewer cars on the road —  and savings of 124-million litres of water each year, which is enough to sustain 34 000 households for a year.

Experts acknowledge that painting the sector green will require buy-in and cooperation at all project stages from contractors, architects, engineers, clients and end users. It will require a commitment to all three dimensions of sustainability — planet, people and profit — across the entire supply chain, in addition to taking traditional design requirements of economy, durability and comfort into consideration. 

According to Architecture 2030, it is not enough to merely ensure that new buildings are compliant to green standards. Approximately two-thirds of the buildings that exist today will still exist in 2040, and these buildings will still be emitting the same amount of CO2 emissions if sustainable, environmentally conversions are not prioritised. The organisation says this shift must take the form of increasing the energy efficiency of existing buildings, eliminating on-site fossil fuels, and generating or procuring 100% renewable energy, 

The South African government and the private sector recognise the need for energy-efficient building systems and practices. This, according to the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, means that South Africa is primed to step into the green building revolution: “To achieve a green and sustainable building culture, South Africa requires extensive international, financial and technical support. Green building technologies and practices from developed countries, such as the United States and Australia are sought, and South Africa presents potentially lucrative opportunities for US firms involved in Green Building Technologies.” 
— Jamaine Krige

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Cupid of green industry making sustainable matches

The Western Cape Industrial Symbiosis Programme (WISP) has been successfully linking up businesses in mutually beneficial partnerships and facilitating economic circularity since its establishment in 2013. The concept is simple: one business that generates unused or residual resources is connected with another that needs those resources for its own processes. These can be materials, water and energy, among others. 

WISP linked up an ice cream and a confectionery factory for the egg whites. (Photo: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP)

However, successful matchmaking in the industrial space can be as complex and variable as it is in human partnerships. Key to WISP’s track record of happy union creation is the scale of their inventory and analysis of individual business waste streams. At intensive “speed dating” waste exchange events, 40 to 50 companies can engage directly and compare notes on their respective surplus resources that could potentially form part of a mutually beneficial value chain. 

WISP, facilitated by NPO GreenCape, carries out extensive research through site visits and direct engagement to fully understand a business’s operations and waste streams, and all data collected is loaded onto a secure online database. This allows for a comprehensive streamlined process for identifying viable opportunities that may exist between members of the network. Once potential synergies have been identified, WISP facilitates engagements and resource exchanges between matched businesses.

Yielding dividends for business and the environment

The multi-award-winning WISP is funded by the City of Cape Town, and its matchmaking and facilitation services are delivered at no charge to its members. Thus far, more than 220 synergies have been facilitated, generating more than R147-million in financial benefits through cost savings, added revenue and private investments. Crucially, it has created more than 392 jobs.

The appeal from an economic perspective is only too clear. But the real — and long-term — value of the programme lies in the significant environmental impact reduction achieved through WISP partnerships. More than 132 000 tonnes of waste have been diverted from landfill and more than 309 000 tonnes of fossil greenhouse gas emissions have been saved. — Caitlin Montague

Case study: A sweet deal

An artisan ice-cream manufacturing business was using organic egg yolks needed for its recipes and, having no use for the egg whites in its production process, was discarding them to landfill as part of its waste stream. 

Meanwhile, a small Cape Town confectionery business specialising in handmade fudge and meringues was struggling to meet overhead costs, which included buying egg whites needed for the products. 

A WISP facilitator introduced the two companies to each other, and after the confectionery company had tested and approved the quality of the egg whites, a business relationship was established. 

The confectionery company now collects the egg whites from the ice-cream manufacturer during the course of its weekly deliveries. 

This has resulted in a meaningful cost reduction for the confectionery business and a new revenue stream for the ice-cream business. Approximately 2 500 litres of egg whites that would have gone to waste are now collected and used by the small business every year.

Case study 2: Burnt pallets converted into bricks

At first, one of WISP’s first member companies, Pallet Cycle, produced wooden pallets from virgin material before evolving its processes to using high-quality second-hand timber no longer of use to other companies. After a fire broke out at Pallet Cycle’s storage facility, 54 tonnes of stored pallets were ruined — half was rendered to ash and the rest was badly charred fragments of wood. With a substantial amount of apparently useless waste material to get rid of, the company approached WISP for advice on whether they had any alternative other than sending it all to a landfill. 

WISP was aware that the clay brick industry is one of the most progressive sectors, whose leaders are always open to exploring alternative materials to enhance production sustainability while improving product quality and versatility. 

The facilitators approached Apollo Brick to see whether they might have use for the burnt pallets. Following a cost benefit analysis, Apollo used reverse logistics to transport the materials to their facility. They used the ash to produce new bricks and put the charred wood to work as fuel for the kiln. 

Pallet Cycle saved R24 750 by avoiding transport and disposal costs. 

Apollo Brick kept production costs low and stayed true to its sustainability philosophy by using more than 54 tonnes of waste materials that would otherwise have been sent to landfill. This saved 16 tonnes of fossil greenhouse gases (Co2) from being emitted.

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Reviving the measure for safe drinking and wastewater

The Department of Water and Sanitation has revived the Green Drop awards for excellence in water quality and wastewater systems, which aims to encourage municipalities to ensure overall improvement of their water management.

At the recent awards ceremony, 30 municipalities scored between 88 and 89%. Witzenberg was the biggest winner. Other top performers were Inkomazi, Stellenbosch and Cape Town. But shockingly, 334 municipal systems out of 850 are classified as critical.

Speaking at the ceremony, Minister for Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu said: “It’s of great concern that so many systems have scores below 31%, indicating the dismal state of wastewater management that is posing a risk to both the environment and public health. 

“Action will be taken against municipalities that flagrantly put the lives of people and the environment at risk. I am engaging with the minister of cooperative governance to take drastic intervention measures to improve [the country’s] water services.”

The Green and Blue Drop certification programmes were launched in 2008 but stopped in 2014. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the relaunch of the programme in his recent State of the Nation address.

The Green Drop initiative focuses on eliminating polluted wastewater and sewage in rivers while Blue Drop seeks to eliminate the hazards of contaminated drinking water in our taps.

Mchunu said the findings of the awards report will be used as the baseline for the 10-point Water Services Improvement plan to measure a sustainable turnaround. He appealed to political, public and private leaders to use the report to help with the turnaround that’s urgently needed. — Hank Franks

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Smart apps help farmers flourish

Smart apps have become an essential tool for South African farmers. Many are available — and some for free — in the Google Play store, with the objective of helping both commercial and smallholder farmers. 

No matter how large or small, farmers need sound management principles. Farmers need dependable weather forecasts — not just current or future predictions, but also patterns of the past — to optimise crop growth and generate a sustainable income. 

Weather-related information is already available from various sources, such as visual observations, radar and satellites, but this data is often not easily accessible or easy to understand. As a result, for years, crop and animal production has been unnecessarily limited by a lack of essential weather data and agricultural advisories.

The input costs of farming are high and can be high risk. Farmers need to be able to manage that risk and know what is coming and how to deal with it, and that’s where smart apps have become indispensable.

A popular app is AgriCloud. It contains data and advisories from the South African Agricultural Research Council and the South African Weather Service. Farm-specific advice is available in all of South Africa’s official languages.

The AgriCloud app has specific information for small-scale farmers growing rain-fed crops. Among other benefits, it provides advice on planting, and spraying herbicides and pesticides.

Another app developed by the Agricultural Research Council is the ARC Hub. The app uses GPS coordinates to identify the location of farmers. It then links them to an advisor in their area who can assist with specific crop or animal queries. Farmers can also warn authorities via the app of the emergence of pests.

The ARC Institute for Climate and Water uses the Rain 4 Africa app, which is specifically aimed at small-scale farmers to help their decision making by providing timely weather and agricultural data via cellphones.

Livestock farmers’ lives are being made considerably easier these days with herd management apps such as HerdWatch. It monitors the health of animals and will even warn the farmer when a cow is about to calf, as well as providing accurate record keeping and reducing paperwork.

The app also records the weight of cattle and calculates the average daily gain of an animal after multiple weighings. It can work out the required times for medications and record feed purchase dates. The app can be used across multiple devices, and, after the initial download, does not require an internet connection.

Several other smart apps are available to accurately predict when an animal is about to give birth. SMS alerts can be sent to up to five different cellphone numbers. Most of these apps are linked to sensors that are attached to animals. They work in all weather conditions, and even in areas where cellphone coverage is poor.

Apps like Farmboek even provide recommendations for equipment such as tractors, with contact details of nearby suppliers.

While many farmers still use the knowledge gained from experience, the management of their risks and control over their production is being hugely improved with the use of smart apps. — Hank Franks

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Pulp non-fiction: a climate case for wood

It’s fair to assume that most people, when considering ways to fight climate change, don’t immediately think of forestry. But there is a unique climate case for sustainable wood — it is the only material that can naturally and significantly decarbonise our planet by driving down the demand for illegally harvested wood, and provide functional alternatives to non-renewable materials that have significantly higher environmental footprints.

Sustainably sourced wood for timber, paper and cellulose products is core to a functioning bioeconomy. (Photo: Mondi South Africa)

“Debunking the notion that industrial forestry is a destructive force isn’t easy, but the global forestry and forest products sector continues to tackle these misconceptions,” says Jane Molony, Executive Director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). “We stand firm in the fact that a holistic, sustainable and circular forest bioeconomy is essential to fighting climate change.”

To understand why paper and wood products are crucial to a lower carbon footprint, we can borrow from Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s assertion that trees don’t grow from the ground; they grow from the air. The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Forest Resource Assessment 2015 states that world forests are sequestering close to 300 Gigatonnes of carbon.

Commercial forestry achieves this both through growing trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, but also by harvesting them at the right time, with carbon being stored in harvested wood products. 

Harvesting makes space for younger trees that absorb more carbon dioxide than their older counterparts. The climate benefit is thus evident in two places: through a stable and increasing carbon storage in the forest itself, and in the forest products. 

Many vilify the forestry sector without understanding its circularity, its ability to store carbon and crucially, how it helps to cut back on fossil fuels. Deforestation, however, must be reduced in the context of indigenous or tropical forests, and illegal wood trade. 

People in developing countries felling trees do not cause climate change; it’s caused by high- and middle-income countries burning fossil fuels. We need to focus on displacing these fossil emissions by using wood’s inherent power as the ultimate renewable.

We do this, first, by increasing uptake of wood products in traditional markets. Organisations like FAO recognise wood as a viable substitute for carbon-intensive materials such as steel and concrete in construction, and plastic and textiles in everyday applications. It is also present in everyday life in the form of paper, tissue, packaging and cellulose products. 

Second, we need to explore the potential of wood fibre and process waste in new applications, such as the use of lignin for batteries for electronics, or extracting sugars and hemicellulose for bio-based chemicals.  

Third, we need to ensure we have enough trees to supply the increased demand for wood-based products. 

South African ecosystems are not tree dominated. We only have half a million hectares of indigenous forests, which are fragmented and occur along the south and eastern coastal inland mountains. Importantly, these are protected. 

We plant fast-growing exotic tree species to produce timber, and currently have 1.2-million hectares of these industrial plantations. About 25% of forestry owned land is not planted with trees, but is home to wetlands, grasslands, indigenous forests and areas of high conservation value.

Tree breeding and sustainable intensification (planting more productive trees on less land) are actively being practised in South Africa. The breeding, selecting and testing of new hybrid varieties is aimed at increasing pulp yield per hectare across diverse climatic regions. Trees are also bred for superior wood properties and their resistance to biotic and abiotic threats including frost, drought, pests and diseases. 

As a sector, we can demonstrate that having commercial plantations has prevented the increased use, destruction, and degradation of natural forests. This speaks to the heart of the way South African forests are managed — sustainably and responsibly. 

It also speaks to the fact that the sector doesn’t harvest swathes of trees, leaving the land desolate for years. Forestry companies have nurseries growing more trees that will take the place of those gone before, most often at a ratio of 2:1. Even harvesting residues are left behind to improve soil fertility and protection.

Finally, harvesting wood makes the circular bio-economy possible. If we don’t have sustainably grown and sourced wood, we can’t replace fossil-based products and do all of the things that climate adaptation demands.

— Jane Molony is the Executive Director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa 

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Learning from the storm

While eThekwini is still reeling in the wake of the devastation wrought by the worst floods to befall the region in recent memory, those fortunate enough to still have access to electricity and online platforms have been calling out governance failures as the reason that a disastrous event became catastrophic. 

Heavy rain caused extensive damage in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal, where the death toll stands at 443. Climate change is impacting most heavily on the poor. (Photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)

It is impossible to know how many of the hundreds of lost lives could have been spared if roads and stormwater infrastructure had been properly maintained, adequate drainage systems implemented, and human settlement in hazardous locations prevented. 

We do know, however, that in South Africa poverty goes hand-in-hand with vulnerability, and that various types of danger lie in wait when basic services are not delivered. But is our idea of service delivery, which prioritises traditional engineering solutions, the sustainable answer in the face of increasingly erratic weather patterns? 

The proponents of a relatively new urban construction model would argue it is not.

Working with nature 

The Sponge City model rejects the traditional approach of urban design, which diverts water away from its natural courses to make way for buildings, with excessive amounts of concrete surfaces leading to rainwater going to waste and ultimately degrading water ecosystems. Instead, it holds that the key to resilience to both floods and droughts is to strengthen natural resources, instead of trying to shut them out. The idea is to reintroduce natural green spaces or other permeable surfaces that can soak up excess rainwater and allow for the cleaning and harnessing of that water.

In heavily developed cities, there are obvious challenges to implementing the Sponge City model simply because of the extent of existing hard surface infrastructure. The lack of tarmac roads and pavements in many informal settlements, on the other hand, could present an opportunity for comparatively swift Sponge City interventions. 

Sponge Cities

In 2014 the Chinese government formally adopted the Sponge City model in its urbanism policy. More than a decade earlier, researchers had proposed it as an important intervention against the problems caused by conventional stormwater management systems. Ecological urbanists embarked on several campaigns to have the model adopted but it was only after a Beijing flood in 2012, which claimed 79 lives, that the Sponge City concept became a nationwide policy.

As KwaZulu-Natal, eThekwini and its surrounds start to rebuild lost infrastructure, urban planners would be well advised to consider the Sponge City model.
— Caitlin Montague

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