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Energising the hidden value of waste

The global societal shift toward reducing waste and adopting a sustainable way of living to preserve earth’s resources and live cleaner lives is paramount. As a result, we are seeing increased interest in waste-to-power, which should bring a spike in both direct and indirect business opportunities.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 5, 2018. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy. 

International activities have been in play for quite some time, having already established plans and policy, and succeeded in a consumer mindset shift. In Sweden, recycling of waste products is remarkable – a societal cultural shift toward reusing household waste has become a solid effort from all residents with nearly 100% of all waste being recycled.

According to Swedish municipal waste management organisation, Avfall Sverige (Waste Sweden), 2016 saw an estimated 2.3 million tonnes of household waste turn into energy through burning, i.e. around half of all household waste. The country’s fleet has grown from one incineration plant in 1904 to 32 operational facilities today. According to Avfall Sverige, energy recovery increased by 6.1% to 2,400,440 tonnes, an average of 237kg per person. In 2017, 50.2% of household waste went to energy recovery.

Due to the country’s impressive incineration fleet, there was capacity to import waste from neighbouring countries, alleviating pressure on their landfills. In 2014, 2.7 million tonnes of waste was imported and converted into energy.

The official website of Sweden explains that “the smoke from incineration plants consists of 99.9% non-toxic carbon dioxide and water, but is still filtered through dry filters and water. The dry filters are deposited. The sludge from the dirty filter water is used to refill abandoned mines.” In the US, the Detroit Renewable Power plant has been providing clean, renewable energy since 1989 to nearly 60,000 homes annually.

Producing up to 68MW, the wastetopower facility processes up to 3,300 tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) per day into refuse-derived fuel that is burned to create 720,000 pounds of steam per hour, according to the company. The facility has to date safely disposed of an estimated 18 million tonnes of solid waste and generated more than 9 billion kilowatt-hours of nonfossilfuel electricity.

Africa has followed suit in this approach with multiple projects in plan or in the final phases of completion, perfectly poised for international investment and shared business practice. In August 2018, Ethiopia’s President Mulatu Teshome unveiled the 25MW Reppie waste-topower plant, which saw a $96 million investment and is expected to process 1,400 tonnes of the city’s garbage waste per day. This is according to project consortia Engineer Samuel Zemichael, a representative of Cambridge Industries.

Additionally, the project will generate 185 gigawatt hours of electricity annually, which is connected to the national grid supplying the capital city with 30% of household electricity needs whilst conforming to global standards on air emissions.

Across the equator in West Africa, Liberia’s capital Monrovia is tabling a plan to curb the city’s waste problem through plastic recycling and generating power through waste material. Mayor Jefferson T. Koijee announced the plan to govern the city through the motto of the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) – “To Monrovia clean, green and safe” – in September.

According to Koijee, the city developed a 180-day quick impact inception work plan for Monrovia City Corporation from March 1 to August 21, 2018. “The plan was divided into six key components that addressed how we intended to comprehend the workings of the city government and seek to build on gains made by our predecessors and to improve on lapses.”

The key components mentioned include:

• internal actions, consultations, and institutional assessment;

• quick impact actions to support the government’s propoor agenda for city safety, cleanliness and organisation;

• assessment of funding and revenue generation sources; • engagement with stakeholders;

• activities for legal and policy reform; and

• work plan output evaluation and reporting.

Mayor Koijee advised that, in the long-term, his administration would seek public-private partnership possibilities for lasting solutions to the city’s waste problem.

In Ghana’s Tema region, a public private partnership agreement was signed between Armech Group subsidiary Armech Africa with the Electricity Company of Ghana in March 2018 to construct a $300 million waste-to-energy power plant. The 1,800 tonne tunnel anaerobic digester is fed with manually sorted organic food waste where 100% of the generated gas is extracted over a 45-day process through a simple methane gas draw-off pipeline, with valves, the subsidiary explained in a statement.

The waste-to-power industry is one that encompasses multiple avenues along the value chain and something which South Africa is actively exploring. The South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) has established a bio refinery research consortium (BRC) to create new value chains from waste biomass.

The consortium is a partnership between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of the Witwatersrand, and Sekolong Sa Dimelana, a rural-based bio-enterprise.

In a statement, the DST explained that the objective is to identify opportunities for the beneficiation of waste byproducts from forestry, timber, pulp and paper industries, such as sawdust, finding alternative and innovative uses for the waste and diverting it from landfills.

The BRC will use the recently launched R37.5 million Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) at the CSIR’s Durban campus, which supports innovation in a range of industries, including forestry, agro-processing and other biomass-based industries. Currently, bio-refinery technology in South Africa’s pulp and paper industry is practised on a very limited scale.

Most wood, pulp and paper waste ends up in landfill sites or is burnt, stockpiled or even pumped out to sea, the DST explained in a statement. The chief director for bioinnovation at the DST, Ben Durham, says the consortium was conceptualised with a strong emphasis on the full value-chain approach, coordination and technology transfer, by providing broad access to technical expertise and the biorefinery demonstration infrastructure that the BIDF provides. The BIDF has developed a novel process to produce cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) directly from wood sawdust, without the need for the conventional pulping and bleaching processes that are currently used to isolate CNC from wood.

Cellulose nanocrystals are nanoparticles that have impressive optical, rheological and mechanical properties comparable with stainless steel, and have widespread applications in the automotive, construction, paper, medical, food, environmental and industrial sectors, among others.

Waste-to-power projects hold sway over sustainably managing waste, increasing distributed energy capacity, and has the potential to offer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.

However, for developing markets to reach levels witnessed in Europe and North America transferring of technology knowhow must take place. ESI

References accessed October 2018:

• How Sweden is turning its waste into gold, YouTube video
• Avfall Sverige – the Swedish Waste Management Association, blog post
• The Swedish Recycling Revolution, Sweden Sverige, blog post
• Detroit Renewable Power

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 5, 2018. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy. 

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