Let’s not waste our waste

2010-06-07 00:00

SOUTH African towns generate an estimated 15 million tons of domestic waste a year, while industry adds another 25 million tons. Most of this finds its way into the country’s landfill sites, many of which are nearing the end of their lifespan.

In the uMgungundlovu District Municipality there are two landfill sites and the search is on for a new one as the New England Road site has an estimated remaining lifespan of less than six years, while the Curry’s Post site near Howick is already full.

But are landfill sites the only answer to waste disposal? Why dump when many waste materials can be recovered and used to make something else?

“Waste beneficiation is a new industry and there is a need for more sustainable, more efficient processes,” says Chris Whyte, director of Use-It, who is hoping to unlock the opportunities available for waste beneficiation technologies in Durban, with an emphasis on diverting waste from landfill sites.

“There is a need to look at alternatives to landfill sites,” says Whyte. “There are many tested and proven technologies available that can use more than 70% of the waste going to landfill as materials for new manufacturing opportunities.

“The problem in South Africa is the cumbersome regulatory and legislative environment, as well as complex certification procedures that tend to stifle innovation and prevent the implementation of viable waste beneficiation technologies,” he says.

Whyte, who is also a member of the New England Road Landfill Site Monitoring Committee, created Use-It to address these obstacles. Use-It initially started life as the eThekwini Waste Materials Recovery Industry Development Programme, before evolving into a Section 21 company trading as Use-It.

In July 2009, the eThekwini Municipality agreed to fund a R6 million three-year project investigating innovative ways of using waste materials. “eThekwini’s decision to back the project is two-fold,” says Fathima Kolia, programme manager for Ethekwini Economic Development.

“Firstly, the city aims to be a leader among South African cities to add value to waste from residential, commercial and industrial activities, thus aligning with the greening policies of our municipality. Secondly, in doing so, give rise to new business development opportunities and job creation.

“The municipality sees the waste beneficiation technologies being investigated by Use-It as the way to go in future, with regard to diverting waste from landfill sites.”

Use-It’s main focus at present is the creation of environmentally-friendly building materials from builder’s rubble, demolition waste and soil-fill which are cheaper and better than current building materials. Down the line they will be looking at producing bio-organic fertilisers from organic wastes which produce better results than chemical fertilisers and without detriment to the environment.

According to Whyte, more than 40 jobs can be created for every 10 000 tons of waste diverted per year. “If we ultimately tap into 70% of Durban’s current waste stream, we could create more than 5 000 sustainable jobs, save more than R140 million a year in waste management costs and potentially build an entirely new industry, pumping more than half a billion rand a year into the city’s economy.”

Use-It is currently producing earth-compressed blocks from waste soil and builders’ rubble on a site in Giba Gorge near Mariannhill.

South Africa is a rapidly urbanising society, says Whyte. “At present, 50% of the population lives in cities, 20 years from now it will be 80%.”

Housing is already a priority issue and demand will increase. But where are cheap and efficient building materials to come from? Answer: waste.

“Waste soils and builder’s rubble constitute 25% of the country’s landfill,” says Whyte. “That’s a huge component of our waste. Durban is building 16 000 houses a year. Using these earth compound blocks would increase that amount by 30% to 40%.”

Kolia says that this is what made the municipality decide to invest in the block-making technology. “It will assist in the building of low-cost housing at a much cheaper rate and we will be able to deliver much more.”

At the site in Giba Gorge, Whyte has joined up with Robert B. Morriss of the California-based Environmental Solutions Group (ESI), an association of U.S. and foreign organisations that have come together to resolve environmental problems. ESI is involved in projects in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Italy and Kenya.

ESI is currently concentrating on landfill reduction, landfill management and the conversion of waste to useful by-products. A particular area of interest is the making of earth compound blocks from waste soils and builder’s rubble.

Morriss sourced a compressed-earth block machine made by Texas-based Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies (AECT). “These are simply the best block-making machines,” says Morriss, who intends setting up a block-making service centre in Durban so that people can come from other cities in South Africa as well as other African countries to see how the technology works. Already, interest has been shown by government bodies in Tanzania, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Ethiopia.

To produce a block, soil and rubble are ground down to produce a fine mixture in a blending machine. Much experimentation has gone into refining this mix so that it will form a solid, unbreakable block under pressure. The mixture is then loaded into the earth block machine and compressed to form a block. One block is produced every eight seconds and they cure in situ. The machines are easily movable so blocks can be made on the actual building site, moving along a conveyor belt from the point of production to the point of construction.

“With this project we want to show that here is a model that works at municipal level,” says Whyte “and then we can take what we have learnt to other cities in South Africa.”

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