JOHANNESBURG – There appears to be no end in sight to the refuse crisis in the City of Johannesburg as Pikitup employees continue with their strike.
Yesterday, workers threw rubbish onto the streets and overturned bins in the CBD.
They have been protesting for over four months over wages and allegations of misconduct against managing director Amanda Nair.
The Johannesburg CBD is full of litter following another protest by Pikitup employees.
Rubbish is piled high on the pavements making it difficult for pedestrians to walk.
Pikitup spokesperson Jacky Mashapu says because of intimidation they have not been able to remove refuse.
In the suburbs, the situation is also dire, overflowing and uncollected bins line the streets causing a health hazard.
Earlier this month, the very first processing plant was launched for Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF) in South Africa. RDF has been used for some time abroad, and now that we’ve joined the party, the technical team operating the plant says our fuels are cleaner and of better quality than the equivalents being made in Europe. Although there is currently only one plant in operation locally, plans are underway to expand to four. For cash-strapped South Africans facing multiple price hikes and a long-term energy crisis, this could be good news. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
Just over a fortnight ago, Interwaste – a JSE-listed South African waste management company – announced that it had launched South Africa’s first Refuse-Derived Fuel plant. The plant, it said, aimed to reduce waste to landfill and pioneer general, industrial and municipal waste to alternative fuels, ensuring less reliance on South Africa’s vital resources and resources that are carbon intensive.
The current plant, which is the first of four lines, is expected to see a minimum of 12,000 tonnes of waste converted to alternative fuel annually for use in the South African manufacturing sector, said Taki Simeli, spokesperson for the company. In future, as the project expands, the aim is to increase to 24,000 tonnes and ultimately 100,000 tonnes per plant per annum.
The first plant was imported in 2015 and is located in a facility in Germiston, where it produces a solid recovered fuel to European-specified standards. If all goes well, the expansions are set to open in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape.
The use of refuse-derived fuels allows companies to lessen their reliance on fossil fuels, which have a high environmental impact, including acid mine drainage and reject coal. “As such, not only are businesses able to drastically improve their emissions profile, but able to pay back their investment within […] five years, where the fuel is substantially more economical,” says Allan Willcocks, Interwaste’s CEO. But, he adds, the key challenge may lie in convincing companies to make the initial investment in RDF. “We are not in this alone. It is up to corporate South Africa to understand the benefits of such solutions to their bottom line, and the environment, in order for us to make the change we want to see,” he said at the time of the launch.
The country’s White Paper on Renewable Energy (2003) set a target of 10,000GWh of energy to be produced from renewable energy sources by 2013, with a detailed update on the state of energy released in 2015. In terms of electricity production, South Africa is blessed with no shortage of sun or wind. But, says Mike Nicholls, Director of Technical Services at Interwaste, our potential for RDF should also not be underestimated. South Africa generated approximately 108 million tonnes of waste in 2011, of which 98 million tonnes was disposed of at landfill; Nicholls says we currently generate around 100 million tonnes a year, of which around 70% is combustible. Some of it can be used to make fertilizer, paper, or plastic – “but what you can’t recover, you should combust,” he says.
“Refuse-Derived Fuel really gained traction because of the economics of it,” he explains. “There’s a large incentive to do something clever.” So far, South Africa has been behind in this respect. The UK, for example, ships around three million tons of waste abroad per annum for use as fuel, literally generating income from rubbish.
There’s also room to generate income through green incentive points. Similarly, in the UK, biomass (sawdust) pellets can be traded for 180 pounds per ton owing to the green incentives attached. For South Africa, which has a relatively large volume of combustible waste, but may not have the funds available to process this in recycling farms, there’s the potential to generate electricity from municipal waste and become involved in the trade of green incentives.
But the primary problem with RDF thus far has been that South Africa could not afford it. The European model, which relies on extremely sophisticated technology, costs around 45 Euros per ton of waste. The waste is typically flipped, screened and sorted, usually using advanced equipment with a price tag to match, and what can’t be recovered is then shredded to make RDF. It then undergoes further processing, using technologies such as optical sorting and density separation. The organic portion is composted and the rest, which is then typically still too wet for use but has a caloric value, is dehydrated. It’s effective, but it’s simply too costly for the South African market – both producers and consumers of RDF.
Interwaste opted to take the arguably controversial step of investing in people rather than technology. The plant is entirely reliant on its staff, with waste separation being done manually rather than mechanically. To prevent contamination at the facility, employees visit clients’ sites and help them to separate their waste. The waste, only once separated, goes into the RDF system. The team of staff working at the plant has grown to around 450 people and continues to increase. In this area, at least, an unfavourable exchange rate has its advantages; processing costs are significantly lower when waste separation is done by people rather than imported equipment.
The South African method has other advantages, too, says Nicholls. Local fuel is much cleaner and higher in calorific value, with a much lower ash content, as well as lower sulphur and metals. The average value of the South African fuels produced at the plant so far has been around 24 MJ/kg; the European average for equivalent fuels is around 16 – 18. In some cases the local fuels have come in at over 27 MJ/kg – the equivalent of an A-grade coal.
Currently, the plant is servicing the cement industry, because this is one of the larger consumers of RDF, and many of the cement producers have existing European contracts. However, the idea is to expand to the boiler technology industry, and also the power industry. The first step in this direction has been to secure a contract with the Drakenstein municipality, where the relatively small amount of waste generated in this area, when recycled, can nonetheless supply electrical energy to the municipality.
It’s an experiment worth watching. The Telegraph last year reported that Britain’s three million tonnes of waste exports could power 450,000 homes; for South Africa, facing hikes in energy tariffs as well as the cost of basic living expenses, such a reprieve could prove a lifeline. Especially since RDF’s major selling point is arguably that it is not subject to the same price volatility as fossil fuels.
At the moment, the Germiston plant is dealing primarily with waste from corporate clients that have removal contracts. But in the long term, says Nicholls, RDF can harness the existing power of the country’s informal sector. “The South African recycling economy is driven by hawkers,” he explains. “We also have a lot of unemployed people living in urban areas. This industry has the potential to create a lot of jobs.” DM
JOHANNESBURG’s residents and businesses can no longer continue putting all their rubbish in one bin and expect Pikitup to collect it, take it to a landfill and dump it.
At present, the city generates 1.8-million tonnes of rubbish a year, which is sent to four landfill sites: Marie Louise, Ennerdale, Robinson Deep and Goudkoppies. But at current trends and with 90% of mixed waste going to landfill sites, the city will run out of space in seven years.
Pikitup MD Amanda Nair says it would cost more than R1bn to build a new landfill site, taking into account engineering, lining, drainage and road networks.
It costs the city R600m a year to clean the streets and deal with illegal dumping.
Pikitup, which last week was hit by a violent strike, serves an area of 1,625km² and is responsible for cleaning and sweeping 9,000km of streets in the City of Johannesburg’s seven regions.
An independent refuse removal company has been hired to move the 30,000 tonnes of rubbish that has piled up on the city’s streets because of the industrial action, while management and South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) leaders have agreed to meet on Monday.
Pikitup spokesman Jacky Mashapu said the strike cost R1.25m a day.
In some countries, there is zero waste to landfill because residents separate their rubbish into different streams for recycling or incineration. Even though there is some recycling in SA by informal reclaimers, the country is a long way from the levels of resource reuse in China, says Ms Nair.
For the past few years, Johannesburg has run a separation-at-source pilot project in a few suburbs. From next year, this has to be rolled out across the city, involving co-operation from all stakeholders including Pikitup employees, residents and the informal sector, Ms Nair says.
Waste is a resource around which small businesses can be built and jobs created.
About 18 months ago, Pikitup approved a waste-minimisation plan. It is drafting a resource, recovery and logistics plan, which includes looking at how Pikitup’s infrastructure needs to be adjusted for a different way of handling waste in future. For example, the old garden refuse sites are being adapted to become service centres taking streams of recyclables.
Other collection vehicles and incinerators will be needed.
“Our primary goal is not raising revenue but reducing the amount of waste to landfill,” Ms Nair says. “Our plans will allow other partners to extract economic value from waste.”
But the streets around Pikitup’s Braamfontein head office last week showed signs of a hasty clean-up by Pikitup executives and Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau. Within two hours, their efforts were obliterated as aggrieved Samwu members re-energised their protest by overturning more dustbins.
Ms Nair, who helped sweep the streets, says strikers had not tabled any formal demands.
An interdict was obtained to halt the strike and an ultimatum issued to workers to return to work or risk dismissal.
Efforts to get comment from the union at the weekend failed.
Last year, Ms Nair was suspended over allegations of impropriety in the award of a tender. In February, she was cleared of charges and reinstated as MD.
The utility has announced a R600m turnaround, from a deficit of R432m in 2013 to a surplus of R181m this year. The improved performance stems from a five-year plan to focus on better revenue collection, reduced overtime and improved fleet performance.
Chief financial officer Suren Maharaj says 90% of Pikitup’s revenue was earned from domestic clients and 10% from commercial clients. There is limited room to improve domestic revenue, collected on Pikitup’s behalf by the City of Johannesburg. But by ensuring better service to commercial customers, Pikitup has reduced bad debts and improved collections.
Recycling is not about rubbish: it’s valuable commodities you’re chucking in your wheelie bin, according to sustainability expert Marcus Gover, not rubbish.
Myths persist about recycling, with some people still claiming that material in recycling bins is secretly sent to landfill rather than recycled and made into new products. (See episode one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV show if you don’t believe me.) But the truth is that recycling is more important than it has ever been, with the global population at 7 billion and rising, and a growing middle class in developing countries hungry for the same consumer pleasures that richer countries’ citizens already enjoy.
“We need to be really clear that we know we’re on a planet with dwindling resources,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall, warning that the amount we waste is tantamount to an “environmental catastrophe”. While he is referring to food waste, his point holds for all the other materials we consume – the oil that makes our plastic water bottles, the trees that make our Amazon delivery’s cardboard packaging and so forth. Everything we buy and use has to come from somewhere, and that means finite resources being dug up, often at great environmental and social cost.
“Everyone knows the environmental benefits of recycling: it conserves resources by putting them back to productive use and, even more importantly, it avoids the pollution caused by having to extract, mine and process new resources,” says Annie Leonard, producer of the viral YouTube film Story of Stuff, and now head of Greenpeace USA.
That extraction can not only cause local environmental problems but international harm too. All extraction requires energy and so – until we take the carbon out of our energy systems – that means more emissions and more global warming. “If you recycle plastic rather than make it from oil, it’s saving about one tonne of CO2 for each tonne of plastic that’s recycled,” says Gover. “All the UK’s recycling is probably avoiding around 18m tonnes CO2 equivalent [total UK emissions in 2014 were 520.5m tonnes CO2e]. It’s a significant contribution. It’s like taking 5 million cars off the road.” Metals in particular are very recyclable. Making the aluminium in your can of fizzy drink from bauxite is a very energy-intensive process – to the point where it’s much cheaper for soft drinks companies to buy recycled aluminium.
Recycling advocates – which should surely be all of us – are increasingly likely to talk up the economic importance of recycling. EU commissioners have even warned that Europe faces another recession if we don’t get better at reusing and recycling our resources. “Recycling has huge job creation potential, creating 10 to 200 times the jobs created by burying and burning all that stuff,” says Leonard. Gover argues that recycling more in the UK – recycling has flatlined in England in recent years – is vital to the country’s economic growth. “We talk about the UK getting its economic growth back, and resources are the fuel for the engine of recovery,” he says.
Recycling also keeps stuff out of landfill, where it can have further environmental impacts. As well as causing local contamination – researchers have found abandoned UK landfills leaching ammonium into rivers – putting rubbish in landfill can exacerbate climate change too. Anything biodegradable that breaks down in a landfill, such as newspapers and food waste, generates methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more powerful than CO2.
We are running out of landfill, too, with just 484,370 cubic meters left in England at the end of 2014, down from 715,000 at the turn of the millennium.
So it’s important for the economy, for our remaining wildernesses that are yet to be mined and logged, and for the planet’s atmosphere and climate. But is it important to you as an individual? Well, if you’d prefer your council tax to be spent on local libraries rather than ever-rising landfill taxes, it’s worth caring about. Gover says that some of its most successful promotional materials communicate to people that recycling more reduces costs for their local authorities.
Recycling is also one of the few tangible and immediate things that anyone can do to minimise their environmental impact. “Recycling has a personal benefit; it gives us a chance to align our values and our actions, which feels good, and inspires us to do more,” says Leonard.
Of course, any schoolchild will tell you that while recycling is important, it’s not as important as two other “Rs” – reducing and reusing. As Leonard puts it: “We shouldn’t start with recycling, but only do it after we have exhausted the environmentally preferable options of reducing and reusing stuff. Being able to recycle something is not a licence to carelessly consume, but is a last resort if we honestly cannot have avoided, reused, repaired or shared the stuff.”
Energy generated from rubbish could power an estimated 40 million households across Africa by 2025, proposes a study.
Using existing data on refuse and urban population growth, the researchers measured the total energy potential of all Africa’s urban solid waste from both incineration and methane produced from landfill sites.
“Our analysis shows that waste, and in particular municipal solid waste, is a renewable energy resource that could provide a meaningful share of both gross energy consumption and electricity on the African continent,” says study author Fabio Monforti-Ferrario, from the European Commission’s in-house science service the Joint Research Centre.
The study reveals that Africa’s urban rubbish could have generated 62.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in 2012 if it had been used in waste-powered plants, for example those at incinerate rubbish or use methane from decaying waste matter to generate electricity. This could increase to 122.2 TWh in 2025 as such plants become more efficient and widespread, the paper says. By comparison, Africa’s overall energy consumption in 2010 was 661.5 TWh.
But the researchers found a vast difference in waste production and management from country to country. Some data points to a drop in the production of suitable waste over the coming decade (see chart). Yet even if this happens, municipal waste could still produce energy for 27 million families in 2025, based on the average African electricity consumption in 2010, the researchers say.
The World Bank predicts Africa’s population will expand to 2.8 billion people by 2060. This growth will bring greater demands on already struggling waste management systems, according to Mark Borchers, technical director at not-for-profit company Sustainable Energy Africa.
“Waste in African cities is often not effectively collected and, when it is, the landfill sites are often not managed in a way that will enable technologies, such as methane capture for energy purposes,” he says.
Financing is also a concern. Bettina Kamuk, chairwoman of the International Solid Waste Association’s working group on energy recovery, says it can be hard to find the money to build electricity plants that burn waste. “In the short term, treatment of waste by incineration is more expensive than landfilling or dumping,” she says.
Logan Moodley, manager of the Engineering, Cleansing and Solid Waste Unit of Durban, South Africa, adds that political support for renewable technologies is lacking.
“There is a need for legislation and incentives to support development,” he says. “For waste-to-energy to be a feasible way forward, political buy-in is needed on all levels.”
DURBAN – A standoff between Ethekwini municipality and Umlazi business leaders has halted waste collection in the township.
The waste collectors in the area suspended their operation three weeks ago after they were allegedly threatened by local business leaders and the uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans (MKMVA).
Local businesses are accusing the municipality of sidelining them in business deals. It’s still not yet clear when refuse will be collected again in Umlazi.
The streets continue piling up with rubbish as the local business forum and MKMVA refuse removal contractors.
They allegedly threatened contractors and forced them to stop collections.
Members of MKMVA claim that they had been promised work by the municipality as subcontractors last year, but it has yet to happen.
Although no formal agreement between the two parties was finalized, it was understood by the veterans that they be given priority over outside contractors for all business and job opportunities.
“Our members felt neglected for so long. They felt that the municipality is not giving them opportunities with regards to business and they were promised before” said MKMVA chairperson in Umlazi Zamindlela Mbhele.
Currently, there are talks between the municipality and the affected parties.
However the municipality said its waste collectors are now continuing with their work under the watchful eye of Metro Police.
“Our Durban Solid Waste team is there accompanied by the police even over the weekend they were accompanied by members of the South African police and our metro police services and waste is being removed,” said Ethekwini Municipal spokesperson Sthembiso Mshengu.
Residents will have to wait until the MKMVA meets with the Ethekwini municipality next week to find out if a resolution can be reached.
Until then, they will be forced to endure unsanitary rubbish-filled streets.