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With the looming reality of further loadshedding across South Africa as we enter the winter months, the exploration of alternative energy sources and projects is high on the agenda particularly in response to the challenges the country’s power utility continues to face. Kate Stubbs, director: business development and marketing at Interwaste talks waste-to-energy for micro-generation.

To explore the opportunities waste can present as an alternative fuel source for energy, it’s important first to understand the current landscape, and that innovative and effective solutions for waste management are fundamental to the contribution and achievement of carbon emission reduction targets and future sustainability in the country, begins Stubbs.

Interwaste alternative energy waste management recycling

Current statistics highlight that South Africans reportedly generate 108-million tonnes of waste per annum, where only 10% of this waste is currently being recycled with the remaining 90% being disposed of at landfill sites, which are fast approaching full capacity.

In efforts not only to curb the potential looming waste crisis, but also to institute enforceable mechanisms to drive change in behaviour, the South African government has already released and continues to release changes to the National Environment Management: Waste Act of 2008
– aligned to the theme of diverting waste from landfills.

These changes are also in line with global trends of zero waste to landfill and promoting ‘circular economy’ thinking, which aims to challenge the status quo and encourage a mind-set change around waste and waste management.

A circular economy, for instance, is a reformative system in which resource input, waste, emission and energy leakage are minimised. This means eliminating unnecessary wastage and waste generation that would eventually be disposed of at a landfill site. This can be achieved by optimising resource efficiency through sustainable product designs; recovery, re-use and recycling of products; or energy production through the systematic approach of the waste hierarchy.

With this in mind, it should be stated that there are already some public and private sector led zero waste to landfill interventions and initiatives underway across the country. These, however, may not leave sufficient remaining waste available to justify the spend in developing a standalone waste-to-energy micro-generation project to serve a singular site. Nevertheless, there is one possible structure that can be investigated in the South African, and African environments.

Refuse-derived fuel (RDF) for micro-generation

While one site alone – for example, an industrial site like a mine – may not produce sufficient quantities of suitable waste to make the business case for developing a waste-to-energy power project, there is perhaps great opportunity for a collective of mines and other industrial businesses, as well as the local municipality within a specific geographical area of operation, to potentially pool the wastes that are non-recyclable but recoverable through conventional means.

Successfully implementing a refuse-derived fuel (RDF) plant will take buy-in and collaboration between the public and private sectors as well as the surrounding community but there are a number of potential benefits to be gained, including, but not limited to:

  • Waste is diverted from landfill, which saves landfill space while reducing negative environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Energy value is derived from waste through alternative uses.
  • RDF energy is considered green energy that yields carbon credits.
  • Job creation through resource recovery.
  • Lower ash content than conventional fuels (e.g. coal), reducing particulate emissions.

The business case will still be very dependent on available volumes of suitable waste to sustain production and power outputs – this model of project is perhaps more feasible for remote and isolated areas that have little access to the national power grid or sufficient waste removal support services. Additionally, in such circumstances there may be a business case for exploring potential biogas projects from human waste and other biodegradable food wastes. Nevertheless, the viability and tangible benefits would depend on the volume of waste actually generated, and whether or not one could identify a bona fide use for the biogas generated.

We are inspired everyday by how perceptions of refuse and waste continue to change and evolve as worldwide governments, industries and citizens alike, are pushing the hand of the waste industry to innovate and effectively repurpose as much waste as possible into something useful.

To look at it within a global perspective; the waste-to-energy market is expected to grow from US$28.4-billion in 2017 to almost $43-billion in 2024, representing a massive economic opportunity to establish new industries and/or revenue streams.

It’s not surprising then that the waste-to-energy agenda in South Africa – and Africa for that matter – is one of the most prominent aspects at the forefront of waste management leadership today. It goes far beyond traditional recycling and – with a vision for integrated and sustainable solutions at the core of our business – we are proud to be able to bring advanced technology and solutions to South Africa’s shores. Interwaste is striving to ensure that waste-to-energy opportunities can be realised locally.

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.