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Top Women Leaders - Innovation in Africa: Environmental sector

Posted by Kate Stubbs on 27/08/19 12:44
Kate Stubbs
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Q1: In your opinion, what is the status quo of the environmental sector in South Africa?

The environmental sector in South Africa is evolving daily and is an extremely exciting industry in which to work. There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to education and changing mindsets as well as managing the array of environmental issues that affect our country such as water pollution, air pollution, land degradation, decreasing landfill airspace and alternative treatment options for hazardous waste streams.

In order to meet Global and local Government targets of reducing the disposal of waste to landfill, as well as to sustainably preserve our environment for the future, a sea-change in behaviour, regulatory compliance and the development of alternative solutions to process waste is required. 

We do, however, need to be very mindful of the state of our own nation when considering environmental impacts and implementing change. Unfortunately, South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world which results in many people living in poverty. Without their basic needs of food and security being met, trying to raise awareness of longer-term environmental impacts and the dire need to change our behaviour towards managing waste will understandably, not be a priority to a large percentage of our population.

The environmental industry is growing though, which is creating opportunities for the public and private sector to work together to educate and upskill people and support the development of individuals and SMME’s - all key ingredients to the long-term sustainability of our economy and environment. The onus is on all of us to demonstrate the benefits of minimising and managing waste streams throughout the value chain.

We are seeing major developments in the waste sector to address some of the above environmental issues and to ensure that we are finding alternatives for waste that make environmental sense. However, compared to our global counterparts, we are still quite far behind in terms of implementation due to the commercial viability of offering such solutions vs. the current low cost of waste disposal to landfill and the scale of illegal dumping in the country. On the legislation side though, we are seeing strong thinking and application to mitigate the risks associated with waste on our environment.

Q2: How does the presence of women in the environmental sector compare to that of men?

Like many industries and businesses, women are still underrepresented in this sector – one that has predominantly been a male-dominant sector for many years. However, we are definitely seeing a positive trend in this space, with more women entering the sector, given the rising need for different types of roles beyond moving waste to landfills. There is strong focus on world class facility development, the science of waste and how this impacts disposal, as well as driving education and therefore, we are seeing a shift to more females in roles such as environmental engineers, scientists, ecologists, consultants, recycling coordinators, and policymakers. Globally, there are some powerful female role models leading the call to action for the need to change our ways in order to preserve and protect our planet for the future and this, amongst others, is driving key changes with regards to the role of females in waste.

Locally we have some strong role models already to follow including our new Minister of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries - Barbara Creecy. 

As the services and solutions in the industry continue to transform from being very operational (transport and disposal to landfill) to more technical and innovative, the skills and roles available to women are becoming more diverse and attractive.  

Q3: What more can be done to encourage young girls/women to pursue a career as environmentalists?

Women have played a large role in history as activists for change and the environment and the future of our planet is certainly a worthy cause for which to fight. 

For any young girls or women wanting to make a real difference in our future, the environmental sector presents some exciting and challenging opportunities for them. There are already some inspirational role models such as Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old Swedish activist who began protesting outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018 about the need for immediate action to combat climate change, or Jane Goodall (expert on the study and protection of chimpanzees), Erin Brockovich, Winona LaDuke (Native American sustainability models, including the White Earth Land Recovery Project and a co-founder of Honour the Earth) and Wangari Maathai (founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya).

Women are definitely starting to lead awareness in the country and globally to educate and inform young girls about the environmental sector and how this can be a career option for them in the future.

For example, organisations such as the Generation Earth strive to recognise and develop green thinkers who are tomorrow’s global leaders. They have created a structured action plan for schools and youth to make a difference and change the world for the betterment of the environment. The organisation believes in the importance of education especially within the environment sector – informing youth about the importance of recycling, repurposing and reuse. While doing so they are also broadening young minds to the amazing possibilities that exist within our industry. 

Interwaste is a firm supporter of the Generation Earth organisation and we believe that every career has an environmental aspect to it – in educating youth about respecting the environment and the vast opportunities within the industry, we are creating a future generation that is far more eco-conscious - ensuring our environment is in safe hands. 

Q4: As a woman in the environment sector, what have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?

One of the biggest challenges initially faced, and something I believe is a challenge for many in the environmental sector, is the complexity of the nature of the work, especially when keeping abreast of new and changing legislation and finding commercially viable and sustainable alternatives to disposal to landfill. The lack of consistency of the adherence to regulatory compliance across the industry requires focus and creates an uneven competitive landscape which is both a challenge and an opportunity.

As a woman, you need to be agile and resilient to stay ahead in this game and always willing to learn. It is an incredibly stimulating environment which lends itself to creative and innovative solutions-oriented people and I believe that women fit this bill really well. Certainly, male counterparts are more than capable however, women come with a sensitive, compassionate and emotive view which – in many cases – lends itself well to considering not just the hard, fast facts but consider how innovation and creativity may impact the larger community.

While not a challenge per say, collaboration and partnerships are also becoming a necessity in order to find new ways to reuse, recycle and recover value from waste. 

As a company, we have achieved many successes in developing leading edge solutions to process waste streams for which there are currently no recycling options e.g. disposal of multi-layered plastics by creating a Refuse Derived Fuel which is co-fed into cement kilns as an alternative to fossil fuel. We have also formed partnerships with entrepreneurs to service various sectors or upskill their teams in processing certain waste streams. 

Q5: How are you innovating in this sector?

People, innovation and legislation form the heart of our business and will remain a competitive advantage to long-term success. We are continuously looking for alternative solutions for reducing, reusing and recovering waste – focusing on really creating a circular economy in South Africa.  

Interwaste has a number of methods that enable the repurposing of waste – dependant on the type of waste that a client is producing and the legislation that surrounds that waste stream. This repurposing of waste is critical in creating industrial symbiosis for the sector– removing waste from one industry for use in another. In doing so, we are strongly contributing to the creation of a circular economy – stripping out excess waste and finding key alternative uses for such waste. Similarly, this could also create an opportunity for further cost savings or revenue generation depending on the processes involved to prepare the waste for repurpose.

Innovation in the waste sector continues to create opportunities for better, smarter waste management and creating symbiosis between waste producers and other organisations that can effectively use this waste in production processes. This means that there is a two-fold approach to effective onsite waste management – contributing to less environmental impact and smarter use of waste.

Below I have provided two key examples of such innovations, to meet client needs and legislative changes.

Refuse Derived Fuel 

The exploration of alternative energy is a popular ‘buzz’ word of late, particularly given the country’s energy challenges. Take Interwaste for example. In 2016, we launched South Africa’s first Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) plant to reduce waste to landfill and directly contribute towards government’s efforts to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. The plant pioneers non-recyclable waste which has a calorific value into alternative fuels – while ensuring less reliance on fossil fuels, that are carbon intensive, such as coal. Taking on average 300 tonnes of waste per month, the plant converts this waste into an alternative fuel – which is then used in the cement industry (all developed according to European standards). 

This plant offers a more substantial and economic alternative to traditional fuel. In fact, RDF fuel is equivalent to A Grade coal and therefore, forms a very sustainable and robust alternative to fossil fuel use. Such fuels can be used within sole/co-feeding plants and replaces conventional fuels (e.g. coal) in production plants for power generation, steam generation, heat generation, cement kilns and other suitable combustion installations.

Following on this local waste management industry first, Interwaste is also the only net exporter of Refuse Derived Fuel into the international cement industry, driving best practice around one of the most advanced waste-to-energy models in industry.

Waste Derived Fuel

Liquid waste and the disposal thereof, is also currently dominating the industry. More specifically, as we move closer to the August 2019 deadline set by the Department of Environmental, Forestry and Fisheries, to ban all forms of liquid waste from landfill sites. This follows on a previous set of regulations implemented in 2013 where hazardous waste with a calorific value greater than 25MJ/kg was banned from landfills. Such a move, only challenges the waste management sector to become more forward-thinking in how we can manage the disposal of this type of waste, to the benefit of the environment, as well as delivering value to clients that are generating such waste.

In response to this, and following on our previous relationship with a leading cement manufacturer to develop a blending platform, the first of its kind in Southern Africa, Interwaste have recently built a new blending platform at its Germiston waste treatment facility to repurpose certain liquid and sludge wastes for alternative industrial means. The facility receives, stores and blends hazardous waste sludge (liquids and solids) with an inherent calorific value, to be used in the pre-calcining process, as a waste derived fuel (WDF).

This product has been used to replace fossil fuels destined for cement kilns, with waste derived fuels - setting a global standard where waste management practices are concerned. The product is currently on trial with another leading cement manufacturer, and with the August deadline looming, we are optimistic that we will see an increased uptake from the industry at large.

However, innovation doesn’t end here. Where a solution doesn’t exist however, we work closely with the client to a) understand their waste processes and disposal methods, b) classify and test their waste, c) apply both industry and broader environmental legislation to any potential solution and d) identify best practice in dealing with such waste – to ensure we find a solution that is not only viable and as cost effective as possible, but that we are looking beyond this and finding ways to ensure that our clients too are at the top of their game when it comes to environmental management and sustainable business practice.

Often times innovation is led by legislation – necessity is a key driver of all invention after all. Therefore, if we consider the latest in waste management legislation, which prohibits the below wastes from going to landfill, there is a gaping hole for some producers. So, as a waste industry, we form a critical role in helping such producers find alternative waste disposal methods – those that are directly aligned to driving and encouraging a circular economy.

2019: Hazardous waste with a calorific value greater than 20 MJ/kg & Liquid wastes with a moisture content of above 40% or that liberates moisture under pressure in landfill conditions, and which has not been stabilised by treatment

  • 2021: POPS pesticides listed under the Stockholm Convention, Other batteries, WEE, Brine or waste with a high salt content

Q6: What are some innovative trends to look forward to in the next 3-5 years?

Interwaste was recently acquired by Séché Environnement, a leading international company focusing on the treatment and recovery of hazardous and complex waste streams. Through this new venture, we are able to access experts in specific fields and regions – which bring with them global best practice - and leverage each other’s knowledge and expertise to fast-track innovation and implement tried and tested methodologies.

As mentioned above, changing legislation and new technologies are some key drivers of change. The ongoing implementation of banning specific waste streams from landfills also gives rise to the need for alternative, innovative solutions for treating waste e.g. on 23rd August this year, all liquid waste will be banned from landfill. This ban is forcing companies and the industry at large to either re-engineer their operating practices and/or develop solutions to handle and safely treat or dispose of this waste stream. 

In the longer-term, we expect to see a strong focus by government to drive waste companies and producers to really tap into the idea of the circular economy – leaving no waste to become just that… waste – rather, creating waste that is reused, repurposed and recycled over and over again. This is a central theme that we will see emerge over time, with a keen focus on how to ensure we are able to achieve this as a country. This also means that we will see much stronger innovation – especially as corporate South Africa feel the pressure of not only new legislation but simply, of doing better business and becoming much stronger advocates for environmental protection and preservation. 

Q7: Your top 5 tips to live a more sustainable life?

Never stop learning. Educate yourself and your families on the importance and value of living a sustainable life.  Be mindful of your own use of resources such as energy, water and food/packaging materials - minimise this wherever possible e.g. switch off lights in unoccupied rooms, don’t leave the tap running when brushing your teeth, use re-usable shopping bags or none at all.Embrace change - every bit matters. Start small and slowly gain momentum, it is not easy to change the way we do things or the behaviour of others, but this is a critical step in making a difference to a more sustainable life for all and it starts with each one of us.Live with integrity – do the right thing even when no one is watching.Be accountable – take responsibility for your usage of resources and encourage others to make a difference too.Think global and act local. We only have one planet. What we do in our country will affect the lives of others and vice versa. 

Q8: Any additional comments?

There is a real opportunity for South Africa to increase its recycling scope – if we look at innovative recycling and repurposing projects that really engage our communities to make a change. From a figures perspective, South Africa has the potential to recycle more than 6.9 million tons each year – bringing the current 34% up to at least 65%. SO I encourage everyone – whether personally or through your business operations – to consider the impact of this one small, yet critical change. 

Furthermore, South Africa is aiming to reach a target of 20% of total waste diversion by this year and the country is heavily involved in the goal of zero waste to landfill by 2030. This means that sound and sustainable innovations would need to be sought by companies, to ensure they are not only compliant (from a waste perspective) but also support governments’ objectives of reaching these targets. And so, I implore corporate South Africa to look deeper into the waste that they are creating and sought out better solutions to address this waste and better manage it, forming part of the future waste landscape – reduce, reuse and repurpose.

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