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Written by Musa Chamane, GroundWork campaigner


Country South Africa

April 13, 2016

Influx of waste to energy projects
Written by Musa Chamane, GroundWork campaigner. 03/15/2016


Due to various challenges experienced by the government regarding waste, incinerators have been pitched as a solution, when in fact they are a false solution. Waste companies, including cement companies, have consistently knocked on government doors for approval of incinerators to deal with waste but under the disguise of waste-to-energy, pyrolysis, gasification projects, and a myriad of other euphemisms. Incinerators are camouflaged as waste-to-energy projects in response to Eskom experiencing challenges in coping with its ability to meet the power demand.

There are number of waste incinerators that are being proposed in different areas in South Africa and in KwaZulu Natal in particular, such as in Newcastle and Pietermaritzburg. All these incinerators are proposed by private developers. The community will not benefit from any of these incinerators since they would just provide high tech jobs.

The incineration debate started as early as the 1980s in South Africa. Incinerators were mostly found in hospitals for hospital waste. The municipal waste incinerator has been proposed more than once and it has received serious resistance from communities. In the past there have been medical waste incinerators that have shut down due to the pressure exerted by civil society and communities. We have seen the Ixopo incinerator close due to the complexity of its activity. The Bloemfontein incinerator has also shut down following a string of complaints from communities.

It is a known fact that incinerators need huge upfront capital investments by the developer. In most cases implementing companies require agreements with municipalities to supply them with huge amounts of waste per month. In case municipalities fail to provide these tonnages, penalties will be incurred by the municipality. This contravenes the Waste Act 2008 that promotes reduction of waste through minimization from source. Incinerators encourage waste generation. Therefore waste beneficiation of communities through incinerators is not sustainable. Just because possibly five people will collect waste to feed an incinerator does not necessarily mean it is a waste beneficiation project without balancing all the costs including environmental costs.

Waste incineration is a false solution because it muscles waste pickers out of the economy. It is not easy to have an incinerator and a materials recovery facility co-existing. Countries with municipal waste incinerators have practiced the burning of recyclables. Recyclables are burnt to keep the high temperatures in incinerators. In most instances municipalities sign binding agreements with municipalities to supply waste to the incinerator, failure of the municipality to provide waste as per agreement, there will be financial compensation to be paid by municipality to the private company.

Communities that reside next to incinerators are against these incinerators, due to toxic emissions that comes from these plants. In the UK, there is the Veolia incinerator which has had an outcry from the community because of harmful emissions. Cancer-causing dioxins and furans are also found in these emissions.

Landfill gas-capturing is also regarded as waste-to-energy — where a landfill is capturing gas from a decomposing waste. There are pipes that are horizontally inserted through waste. These pipes suck or capture any gas that is emitted from the decomposition process. Capturing of this gas is not easy, a large percentage of gas escapes without being captured. The gas that is captured is not ready to use as electricity and it still needs some conversion process. Purification of this gas becomes another process that requires a huge amount of money. Gas capturing is also not financially self-sustainable because of the capital investments that have to be put through before the project takes off. Due to the complex nature of gas capture most municipalities have opted for gas flaring where all the types of gas captured through the pipes end up being flared. Burning is mostly done to convert some gases that are detrimental to the atmosphere. This methodology also proves to be a false solution to the energy or waste challenge the country has.

Companies like cement companies believe that by burning car tires they can recover energy that was invested during the manufacturing of that particular tire. The cement companies are hoping to replace coal with tires. The tire regulator has to pay even more through retrofitting the cement kilns for the cement plants. Cement plants will benefit greatly from this process. They will benefit through tonnages of tires disposed at their plant, substitution of coal with tires and the kilns being retrofitted for free. Cement plants are for manufacturing cement not as a solution to waste problem. Therefore this is regarded as a false solution as well since most cement companies are still failing to operate according to their license conditions. Dust is still a challenge for all the cement companies in South Africa. Tires can be crumbed recover rubber and construct tennis courts use as a mash in road construction. Tires will create more jobs when they are crumbed than when they are burnt.

Municipalities have been convinced by private companies to consider waste incineration. Incineration is a very complex and polluting technology, therefore it is important that municipalities enforce the license requirements. To have an operating incinerator one requires a license or approval from government. Municipalities are known for maladministration and one wonders how such a risky technology can be approved with an expectation that the municipality will monitor operations.

The waste hierarchy makes it clear that waste has to be reduced but if we have technology that wants us to generate more surely that means that technology is against our hierarchy. Re-use of materials is also important in recycling because that also minimizes waste going to the landfill. Some waste materials can be re-used and it becomes valuable again. In developing and developed countries the reused materials are sold in an open market where children toys or clothing, books, furniture are sold that is part of recycling because each material reaches the end of life with some consumer and the next consumer might fix or repair and or reuse it again.

Treating of waste is also a component of a hierarchy. Some waste materials can be treated to be less harmful e.g. health care waste. If the health care waste is sterilized and shredded it can be disposed of at the general waste site because the toxicity such material has been dealt with. Once it’s properly treated it is no longer harmful to the environment including human. Treatment is sometimes referring to waste incineration when they burn “treat” and recover energy. In simple terms it is burning or incineration.

The challenge of waste can only be dealt with if the waste hierarchy is stringently applied. For some waste materials that cannot be reused or recycled need not be produced such as polypropylene. The modern way of dealing with waste is through reduction, reuse, recycling, treating and disposal. One cannot go straight to treatment without exhausting the other phases or stages of the waste hierarchy. It is clear that waste recycling is the way to go because it has so many advantages as opposed to waste incineration.