When the winners of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics step on to their podium, they will be presented with rubbish. Every single gold, silver and bronze medal will consist of 100% recycled e-waste, which otherwise may have clogged up landfill sites. So, as one headline puts it: ‘The world’s best athletes will wear old cellphones around their necks next summer.’
The eco-friendly medals comply with stringent guidelines regarding their precious-metal content and design, so you’d never guess their high-tech history simply by looking at them – just as you may not realise that your paper towels are actually reincarnated office documents and cereal boxes, or that the rustic boardwalks along some of South Africa’s beaches are made of discarded plastic bottle tops.
Recycling and repurposing has become a way of reducing our carbon footprint and tackling the growing mountains of waste. In South Africa, 108 million tonnes of waste is generated per year, with 90% of this (about R17 billion worth of resources) dumped as landfill. According to Kate Stubbs, director of business development and marketing at Interwaste, Joburg’s landfill sites will run out of space in less than 10 years. She says that South Africa is lagging behind other economies when it comes to recycling and maximising opportunities from waste materials.
‘Waste is inefficiency. When waste is produced, it’s typically a by-product of an inefficient system. It’s an unnecessary cost,’ says Stubbs, who advocates the separation of waste streams and the recycling of suitable materials to be sold as input materials into manufacturing processes. This does not only relieve pressure on the planet, but also creates employment and boosts the economy.
Mpact, Southern Africa’s largest paper and plastics packaging and recycling business, recovered more than 630 000 tonnes of recyclables (waste paper, cardboard, PET plastic bottles and milk and juice cartons) in 2018. ‘With the recycling industry already providing jobs for 100 000 South Africans, it is clearly a growth industry,’ says Mpact Recycling, which supports recycling ventures that range from collectors with shopping trolleys to entrepreneurs and small business owners running trucks and collection centres. In northern KwaZulu-Natal, success stories include Eshowe-based Mtima Recycling, which grew from six employees and one bakkie to 21 full-time employees with three bakkies. There’s also Babakababa Trading, based in Nongoma, which was started by a mother and her son and daughter, who managed to buy their own baling machine and now have eight full-time employees.
‘Every single bit of waste presents an opportunity – it is about finding sustainable solutions for industry no matter what the waste stream, industry or potential hurdles are,’ says Interwaste’s Stubbs. ‘For example, the drive to divert waste from landfill has directly resulted in waste disposers or management companies merging into reprocessing industries, with significant focus being placed on reuse, recycle, repurpose. This is causing manufacturers to rethink how they design their products, as well as the type of resources they use to make their goods and products of today, which will become the raw materials of tomorrow.’
China’s policy change on imported waste and nature TV documentaries such as BBC’s The Blue Planet series have sharpened the environmental awareness of consumers, brand owners and governments, according to Mpact CEO Bruce Strong. ‘One could reasonably expect that single-use, non-recycled packaging of any substrate will be phased out globally over the medium term, with many major brand owners having already made public commitments in this regard,’ he says. ‘This presents opportunities… We have recently increased our packaging innovation efforts to offer customers viable alternatives to non-recycled products.’
Mpact has, for instance, replaced the polystyrene packaging of fast-food company Fishaways with a cardboard box that is fully recyclable and lower in cost, and provided Steers with an equally sustainable cardboard solution for its four-burger meal.
In Cape Town, a company called NewLife Plastics is giving about 120 000 household plastic packaging containers per month a new lease on life as garden benches, tables, jungle gyms, decking and walkways. ‘We use polyolefins, a type of high-density plastic found in milk or Jik bottles, cosmetic tubes, bottle caps and heavier plastic bags,’ says company co-founder Bronwyn Bagley. The outdoor furniture is made from planks that look like wood but are practically indestructible. ‘They don’t require any maintenance and won’t rot, splinter, warp, fade in the sun or become slippery when wet,’ says Bagley. ‘As an added benefit, public benches or walkways made from recycled packaging generally don’t get vandalised or stolen, because the material is extremely heavy, doesn’t burn and has no commercial resale value.’
There are cases where recycling and reusing waste streams is not possible. But even this opens up new opportunities, for instance the conversion of waste to energy. This addresses two important sustainability challenges in Africa: power generation, and reducing reliance on landfills, according to Stubbs.
Her employer, Interwaste, piloted a refuse-derived fuel (RDF) plant as the first of its kind in South Africa in 2016. ‘RDF is a fuel that is created by processing non-recyclable materials, such as multi-layer plastics, that have a calorific value,’ she explains. ‘The plant currently supplies cement kilns with RDF material, which is co-fed into the kilns as a fuel source. RDF fuel is equivalent to A-Grade coal and therefore forms a very sustainable and robust alternative to fossil fuels.’
It can replace conventional fuels (such as coal) in production plants for power generation, steam generation, heat generation, cement kilns and other suitable combustion installations.
The global waste-to-energy market is expected to grow from US$28.4 billion in 2017 to almost US$43 billion dollars in 2024, says Stubbs, underlining the ‘massive economic opportunity to establish new industries and revenue streams’. In some areas there may even be a business case for converting human waste into biofuel.
‘Across industries, we are seeing a more concerted effort to find solutions that make active use of waste – building on the philosophy of reusing wherever possible,‘ concludes Stubbs. ‘However, we need to instil a complete culture change and shift markets towards “giving back to the system” in how we approach and treat resources versus waste, so as to avoid potential crises and ensure we build towards a resilient and sustainable future in Africa.’
Olympic medals from e-waste, outdoor furniture from plastic bottle caps and energy from landfill waste could form the beginning of a rubbish revolution.
Montecasino Recycling Programme
Montecasino in Fourways, Johannesburg, has significantly invested in a waste-management programme that incorporates public recycling facilities for
the surrounding community
- The precinct (featuring three Tsogo Sun hotels, a casino, bird gardens, 40 restaurants and food and beverage outlets, amongst others) recycles 39% to 45% of all waste, including paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, cans, metal scrap, e-waste and fluorescent tubes.
- Bar-coded waste bins enable tenants to record their waste logs online and track their specific waste streams.
- Waste is sorted into: non-recyclable (wet, contaminated waste that goes into the compactor bin); recyclable (graded and baled for on-selling into industry); and food waste (macerated and placed into drums for transport to a licensed composting facility).
- ‘We recently started to process our garden waste into mulch,’ says Montecasino Property Management. ‘We’re also planning to provide each tenant with their monthly waste generation stats. We further want biodegradable cups to replace all plastic cups across the precinct. Ultimately we’re striving for zero waste to landfill.’
Illustration: Gallo/Getty Images