It’s time to wake up to the waste problem

2008-06-30 00:00

WHAT’S up with the municipality? The short answer is: I’m not sure. Questions directed three weeks ago to strategic executive manager for community service Zwe Hulane, head of waste management Richard Rajah and the municipal spokesperson about the city’s plans for waste minimisation and concerns around a lack of recycling facilities for the general public went unanswered.

For the longer answer, or part of it, we go back to 2001 when a bid by a Gauteng company to convert organic waste from the New England landfill site into organic fertiliser piqued the interest of the city council. The deal fell apart, however, reportedly owing to bureaucratic delays on the part of the municipality.

In 2004, proposals for an innovative new waste park at the New England Road landfill were unveiled to Witness readers. Driven by local business consultant and waste specialist Chris Whyte, the waste park was widely seen as the answer to many of the city’s waste problems and would handle the conversion of biodegradable waste to organic fertiliser and the recycling of tyres, glass, plastic, building rubble and wood waste.

Despite “in principle” acceptance of the plan by Exco, Whyte was forced to abandon the project in early 2006 after council insisted that the new Municipal Finance Management Act necessitated that the process be put out to tender. The tender requirements rendered the project unviable, forcing Whyte’s partners to pull out. Millions of rands in investment were lost to the city and Whyte took his intellectual property and expertise to Durban.

Seven years after a recycling facility was first mooted, how far have we come?

Following Whyte’s withdrawal, the contract to establish a composting and recycling facility at the New England Road landfill was given to Shoretech Environmental Services. Shoretech falls under Penta Technologies, which represents German company Eisenmann in South Africa. Wayne Lambson, one of three directors of Shoretech but mainly concerned with “representing the financiers” referred me to co-director Sizwe Makhaye whom he said was the “direct link” to the municipality. Messages left for Makhaye were not returned.

In August, Durban-based environmental consultants ERM were appointed by Shoretech to undertake a basic assessment for the proposed recycling project in accordance with environmental impact assessment regulations. A spokesperson for the consultants said an application of intent had been lodged with the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs (DAEA) but “some gaps” in the information required for the basic assessment were identified in the latest round of consultations and public meetings. “We are now collating that information in a final document to go before the DAEA.”

In his view, there had been no “undue delays” in the process.

While a recycling facility will obviously take pressure off the landfill and create some jobs for people on site, it is not clear how it will ease the plight of households wanting convenient recycling opportunities.

According to Whyte, as long as Shoretech has a tender to do recycling-related work for the city, there’s little room for separate private initiatives — like curb-side recycling projects — that bypass the municipality.

Meanwhile, we’re running out of time. While the search is on for an alternative landfill site for Pietermaritzburg, nothing is final. Whyte describes the New England landfill and others in South Africa as “time bombs”.

“In the next two to three years, this country will exceed its landfill capacity by 70% in five out of nine provinces. It’s a time bomb and we are going to see more and more rubbish.”

After his experience with Msunduzi, Whyte found interest in his ideas in Durban where his new Section 21 company has secured a contract with the eThekwini Municipality to develop a waste materials industry development programme.

Whyte says the project will create 2 000 jobs in the first five years and save R500 000 a day in landfill costs. He has an operating budget of R1,5 million annually over three years and a range of funders. He’s been invited by the Ethiopian government to discuss a project to convert agricultural waste into organic fertiliser. There’s interest from Dubai, Bolivia and Afghanistan.

Apparently, technologies exist that can use up to 70% of waste from a city like Durban which produces 6 150 tons daily. For every 10 000 tons of waste recycled, Whyte reckons 40 jobs can be created. But to make waste work, you need to “beneficiate” it. In other words, once processed it becomes more useful. For example, once plastic has been washed, granulated and pelletised, its value rises from R1 to R6 or R7 per kilogram.

Whyte says there is a range of applications for recycled material: wood-plastic composite for roof trusses; roof tiles made out of recycled rubber; bricks made from builders’ rubble and clay; and crumbed tyres and glass for road surfacing.

“All this is possible,” said Whyte. “It’s time to wake up.”

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