South Africans generate roughly 108 million tonnes of waste per year. Only 10% is recycled and the rest ends up deposited across our landfill sites. ReSource speaks to Henri Thompson, group executive chairman at the Somerset Group, about the company’s introduction of a revolutionary technology to address this.

South Africa’s landfill sites are not only fast approaching full capacity, but the piling-up of waste is causing tremendous land and air pollution. A 2020 study has also shown that communities who live close to landfill sites (within 5 km) are at a 41% higher risk of developing asthma, an 18% higher risk of developing tuberculosis, a 25% higher chance of having diabetes, and an 8% greater chance of suffering from depression. 

However, with government’s renewed focus on transitioning towards a circular economy – with the revision of the National Waste Management Strategy (2020) and approving key actions that will contribute to climate change, emissions reduction and waste minimisation – many businesses are looking for more sustainable ways to deal with their waste. For the longest time, there seemed to be no feasible solution in sight but Somerset Group’s Asher promises to deliver not only a sustainable waste management solution but also a cost-effective one.

Somerset Group is a multifaceted company with a special focus on international trade and infrastructure projects. It specialises in all things renewable energy, water and lighting. Since its inception in 2012, the business has grown into a multidisciplinary organisation that has developed extensive skills and resources in green technology.

The Asher

Upon signing an agreement with Keelinx SDN BHD, the authorised representative of Pamarai (the Asher’s global exclusive distributor, trademark owner and manufacturing partner) for Africa, Somerset was tasked with bringing Pamarai’s proprietary Asher technology to local and regional markets. The Asher is a zero-waste machine that can quite literally ‘bake’ waste into multipurpose ash without polluting the environment – effectively solving the problems associated with landfills and incinerators.

Thompson says Somerset went through various legal frameworks to ensure that the Asher was legal and within the specifications of the countries it’s expected to operate in, largely because it is designed to comply with US EPA standards. In Malaysia, the Asher’s birth country, it has received its MyHIJAU Mark certificate, a green label awarded by the Malaysian Green Technology Corporation, a government agency under the Ministry of Environment and Water of Malaysia. The green label was given after scrutinising its performance, safety, environmental impact and design aspects. It is also in the process of being certified with the National Environmental Management: Waste Act (No. 59 of 2008). 

The first prototype was created in 2010 by Roland Tee, a retired Malaysian auditor. He realised, from reading newspapers, that there needed to be a more environmentally friendly way to dispose of waste. The Asher was then developed and improved until it became a commercially viable unit in 2014. Its patent has been approved in Malaysia, China, Australia and Indonesia, and is being used in a number of other countries, including Malaysia, China, UAE, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, India and Saint Lucia.

The Asher is essentially a tiny waste disposal pyrolysis unit that fits nicely within a typical car parking spot and can reduce most solid waste materials (except glass, metal and concrete) into ash.

When waste is put into the Asher, it ends up in the bottom of the thermal degradation chamber, where it will decompose via the plasma pyrolysis process. This is a process of chemically decomposing organic materials at elevated temperatures
in the absence of oxygen. The process involves a change in the materials’ chemical composition, and it is commonly used to convert organic materials into solid residue containing ash, carbon and small quantities of liquids and gases.

Tee also designed a water filtration system to filter and suppress the dioxins and furans from being discharged into the atmosphere. The emission generated from the thermal degradation process in the Asher is filtered and cleaned through its combination of liquid and solid filtration media. These media are a patented, specially formulated Nanogreen high-alkaline solution (of 13 types of metallic minerals) and flue gas carbon. Used together, the Asher releases the emission in the form of neutral, non-toxic, non-harmful vapour.

The Asher is also equipped with a water self-cleaning system that cleans the liquid used during the filtration system. The integrated cleaning system will clean and alkalinise the contaminated water, which is then reused within the Asher itself.

“It is a very simple operation; the technology is also very simplistic. That’s what attracted us to the Asher – it requires very basic training and supervision for operations and maintenance,” says Thompson.

From trash to ash

Somerset Group currently offers three variants of the Asher. The 2 t solar-powered Asher, which is 70% vapour and 30% smoke, is most popular for deployment in rural areas, islands, landfill or dumpsite clearing or where electricity supply is a challenge. There are also the 2.5 t and 4 t electric smokeless units. These units emit vapour and are recommended for clinical waste, city use, as well as large premises like airports, universities, malls, office towers and hospitals.

“The beautiful part about the Asher is its versatility and redeployability, which means that it offers on-site waste management and enables treating waste as early as at source,” says Thompson.

The Asher can treat most types of solid waste, organic and inorganic – including plastics, diapers, paper, textile, poultry farm waste, medical waste, e-waste and rubber.

Sorting and segregation are not necessarily needed before waste goes into the Asher, which can reduce waste to 4% of its original volume. This means when you put in 2 tonnes of waste into the Asher, you get 80 kg of ash residue – which is non-harmful, non-toxic and reusable – at the end of the process per day. The ashes from the Asher can easily be used as fertiliser additives, soil stabiliser and soil conditioner, or mixed with other materials to make paving bricks and as construction filler.

WHY IS ASHER THE RIGHT WAY?

  • It’s self-sustainable, needing no external energy (2 t solar unit)
  • Green, eco-friendly
  • Capable of 90% landfill diversion
  • Easily mobilised
  • User-friendly
  • On-site waste management
  • Cost-effective

Better than conventional

A conventional 1 000 t incinerator is a huge capital injection and normally comes at a very high cost; however, the Asher, in most cases, works out about 80% cheaper, tonne for tonne. The 2 t solar Asher offers a return on investment in just under 18 months. In addition to selling the units, Somerset also offers a rental option.

The average company will charge businesses to pick up the waste (dependent on quantity and transport) and dispose of it at landfill. With the Asher, treatment is done on-site. 

“We’ll supply the operators, or we can provide training to equip your staff with the necessary skills to operate the Asher and offer the necessary financial models, depending on the client,” Thompson explains. 

Somerset will also pick up the ash from the business on a weekly basis and include the relevant company in the revenue of that ash. That’s especially beneficial for SMME start-ups. In South Africa, a flagship mall in the north of Johannesburg will be taking on the solar Asher in the first quarter in 2021, where 2 t of food waste will be processed daily.

“Although it’s very hard to get through the initial barrier and resistance to new technology in South Africa, we are very excited about this technology. If it is presented to the correct people, it will take off,” Thompson concludes.

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