• Merit in the whole

    In partnership with its clients, waste-management solutions provider Averda South Africa is re-thinking – and redefining – the waste chain

    It has become a cliché to call us a ‘throw-away society’ but, according to Brindha Roberts, head of sustainability at waste-management solutions provider Averda South Africa, it’s a fairly accurate description.

    ‘In earlier days, consumers understood and appreciated the value of the “whole”,’ she says. ‘The consumption of a natural resource was utilised to its maximum extent, with minimal wastage. We see this in the habits of the elderly, where plastic carrier bags are folded, stored, reused and appreciated as a thing of value. As we progress as a species it seems we predominantly learn by experience, and we have just realised the error of our ways regarding the sourcing, design production, utilisation and disposal of goods.’

    Circular economy
    At Averda, the concept of a ‘circular economy’ is central to finding value in the whole. Roberts believes this can be achieved by an integrated life-cycle approach, and by redesigning products to include responsible sourcing of renewable raw materials, fit for purpose and with post-use (reuse, recycling or repurpose) in mind.

    ‘A successful circular economy designs, manufactures, uses and reuses products for as long as possible with only the truly spent items being discarded as waste,’ she says.

    ‘Products are made by combining several valuable materials to form a useful and functional product, and in most instances can be “de-manufactured” back into valuable raw materials to feed into the start of the process. ‘This post-use beneficiation, as opposed to linear disposal thinking, has the potential to create new economic sectors to improve employment levels and spur technological development,’ says Roberts.

    The question is, what to do with those products when they finally reach the end of their life cycle. As a leader in the waste-management sector, Averda is constantly rethinking the process by finding sustainable alternatives to sending that waste to landfill. In 2017, after all, 96 million tons of waste were deposited across South Africa’s 826 operational landfills, and the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs has warned that if it continues to be a throw-away society, it will run out of landfill airspace.

    ‘Averda has identified that the need for landfills will be our reality for the foreseeable future due to the sheer expanse of the land – logistics – and the lack of economically feasible technology,’ says Roberts. ‘But we acknowledge and have identified the need to re-think the waste chain in partnership with our clients. We are in the process of designing and implementing global best practice in the treatment and handling of hazardous waste to unlock the potential value.’

    While landfills will continue to exist, Averda is working on ways to limit their environmental impact

    The NIMBY effect
    While this is the case, using licensed and legally compliant facilities will help minimise any negative consequences. These facilities have a number of mechanisms in place to manage their social and environmental impact, including contamination barriers, monitoring committees and ongoing measurement of air and soil quality for periods of up to 30 years following the facility’s closure.

    ‘In addition to the environmental hazards, improperly managed dumps also pose serious health problems as they become breeding grounds for disease vectors such as rats and mosquitoes, and illegally dumped waste could cause respiratory illnesses, including asthma and TB,’ she says.

    This all adds to the NIMBY (not in my backyard) effect. ‘It’s a common reaction by people who aren’t necessarily opposed to landfill sites, but don’t want them in close proximity to their properties,’ says Roberts. This opposition adds to the scarcity issue, pushing landfills further and further away from urban areas and increasing the cost and carbon footprint associated with managing waste.

    Finding the sweet spot
    Roberts adds that seeking out compliance and innovative alternatives in waste management comes at a cost, so using licensed waste-management facilities and abiding by their requirements can be a more expensive option for waste disposers. ‘However, this should not be a cost-only decision,’ she says. ‘Waste-management value chain outcomes should be a priority, and non-compliance should not be an acceptable cost-saving mechanism.’

    Currently waste-management providers compete with unlicensed counterparts who can carry out the same service at a fraction of the cost, without any regard for the environmental consequences.

    Brindha Roberts, head of sustainability, Averda South Africa

    In South Africa, and across the continent as a whole, waste diversion is not only an environmental objective; it also has wider reaching economic and social impacts. ‘It’s about finding the sweet spot between people, planet and economic stewardship,’ says Roberts.

    ‘For example, recycling is currently favoured because it is the main income source for a large portion of the population, therefore structuring diversion without inclusion will be faced with resistance.’

    If more entities were to prioritise the environment and people over cost, it would enable investment in sustainable alternatives. ‘Currently, options like refuse-derived fuel and anaerobic digestion are only available in selected regions, whereas bio-drying and gasification are not available at all,’ according to Roberts. ‘Investing in compliance will drive vital funds into an industry that’s plagued by under-pricing – increasing the ability for waste experts to invest in much-needed alternative technologies.’

    When it comes to waste management, the duty of care is assigned to the waste generator. However, they do not necessarily have the knowledge or competence to track legislation or best practice, as it is not their core business. For this reason, it is beneficial to engage the services of responsible waste-management providers.

    Drawing from their expertise and experience, waste generators can negotiate the complexities of compliance – and benefit from the innovative thinking of the waste-management experts.

    ‘If it is possible to recycle a fraction of a used disposable diaper back into the process of making a new diaper, surely it is possible to find the value in presently landfilled chemicals or to find value in the molecular structure and properties of the waste as a feedstock to alternative industries,’ says Roberts.

    ‘Averda’s clients’ core functions do not include R&D for waste beneficiation – and rightly so. Their focus is upstream and on raw-material sourcing, product design and increasing efficiencies,’ she says.

    ‘Division opportunities dependent on volume and access to a panoramic view of inputs and outputs over diverse sectors and, of course, economic influences… Averda offers this and more.’

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