[IN THE HOT SEAT] Waste management: A critical pillar to economic and sustainable development | Infrastructure news

As a country, there is no doubt we are facing a magnitude of issues that border on human rights violations – challenges that have a long
road to resolution.

By Kate Stubbs

Not only are we in the throes of one of the worst power crises the country has seen but so too are we faced with a water crisis, a growing population putting pressure on already strained resources and, of course, far-reaching climate concerns.

However, not all is lost, and this should be a clear message to business and government.

Sustainability has become the watchword for South African corporates, as they grapple with both the public’s demand for environmentally friendly products and the demands of ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting.

The combination of the above is helping to drive a culture change across society, leading waste producers and waste managers to work together to identify innovations that address key waste issues, while meeting changing legislative demands.

Making the circular shift

What organisations are now learning is that much of the 90% of waste currently being disposed of to landfill can actually be reused as alternative resources, when managed effectively.

We need to shift from the traditional, linear production process – the take-make-dispose model – towards one that aims to reduce all unnecessary waste materials, reduce the consumption of energy and raw materials and, where there is excess, to feed this back into the cycle.

This is the definition of the ‘circular economy’ model, where waste created in one industry is repurposed for use in other areas of industry and the economy, and where disposal is the final option, rather than the immediate go-to.

This merely means looking deeper than the obvious solutions and finding ways to unilaterally work together to ensure such solutions become viable and cost-effective, and to ensure that we drive an understanding in communities as to the vital importance of such innovations in meeting South Africa’s challenges and being part of the change.

Not only does proper waste management ensure that we can reuse and repurpose the growing mound of waste, but it ensures that where waste cannot be repurposed/recycled, it can – as a last resort – be sent to landfill, but done properly.

Aligning to avert disaster

Without a doubt, the waste sector plays a fundamental role in meeting the country’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), tackling at least 6 of the 15 goals in total. Goals 6 (Safe water), 7 (Clean energy), 13 (Climate action) and 11 (Sustainable cities) are the most prominent in this regard.

In fact, it is an integral part of these goals. Taking circular economy thinking into account – where waste reuse and repurposing are fundamental to not only meeting these objectives – is central to addressing environmental impacts and growing ESG targets globally.

However, we have a conundrum where business, communities and some levels of government are underinformed about the potential of well-managed, compliant and innovative waste management solutions.

The reality, though, is that with a population of 61 million people and growing by around 1% a year – and with each person generating around 2 kg/day of waste – we are heading towards a waste disaster if we don’t start creating solutions and ensuring that all parties are educated as to why effective waste management is so important.

Waste-water-energy nexus

As a starting point, let’s discuss the impact of wastewater management on driving sustainable water supply. With 7 of the 13 major water systems in South Africa predicted to be in deficit by 2040 and the demand for water expected to exceed available supply by 2030, we need to find solutions.

In our experience, wastewater management can result in the redistribution of water into the environment for irrigation and dust suppression, as well as to replenish rivers and catchments in our water infrastructure networks.

Furthermore, treated to the required standards, we have found that nearly all effluent can be recycled, if done properly, creating a strong solution for water sustainability and access – utilising water that was previously deemed not safe for consumption.

We need to create a much more diverse water mix, including groundwater and wastewater reuse, if we hope to protect this scarce resource and create a water supply that is safe
and consistent.

On the other hand, waste can tackle energy crises but needs solid business, government and industry collaboration to see it to fruition. If we consider the Just Energy Transition’s focus on achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050, exploring alternative sustainable options is key and – if we consider that the global waste-to-energy market is expected to grow from US$28.4 billion (R545.7 billion) in 2017, to almost $43 billion (R826.2 billion) in 2024 – waste presents a large economic opportunity to establish new industries and/or revenue streams and meet the SDGs.

Converting waste to energy production occurs through three key processes – thermal, biological and physical. For each process, there are a variety of technologies available to convert different types of waste to energy such as electricity, steam or gas and so, there are multiple layers to meeting South Africa’s energy crisis – critical to government’s current agenda.

However, let’s consider the obvious. Not all waste can be reused or recycled and, where it can, cost can be prohibitive sometimes.

Therefore, the need for waste management strategies that look at the full value chain of waste – and ensure that the growing waste generated by the very communities and businesses we serve can be best managed and disposed of – should be critical.

Time and solutions of the essence

Nobody wants to believe it, but engineered landfills and associated waste management practices remain cost-effective and are thus still an attractive and compliant option for managing a wide variety of waste types.

However, with landfill airspace diminishing across the country, we have to consider the vital importance of creating more space to deal with the waste generated by South Africans.

This reiterates the importance of not only alternative solutions to meeting South Africa’s challenges but indicates the fundamental role of effective, ethical and compliant waste management practices in driving South Africa’s climate agenda.

The challenge is great but so are the solutions – we must create strong industry collaboration and investment projects that are supported by communities to truly change the status quo.  



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