The Business of Waste


As South Africa experiences increased pressure in terms of airspace in current landfills, the lengthy time required to license a new landfill, and the types of waste that can legally go to landfill, business opportunities are opening up in the waste economy. To tap into it, we need to see waste as a resource, not an environmental burden.

The concept of zero waste leads to thoughts about how waste generation can be avoided in each stage of a product’s life through a range of interventions, including product and process design, so that materials can be returned to the economy rather than being lost from it. Waste beneficiation, on the other hand, involves recovering and processing discarded material to generate economic value from that material.

Dr Jaisheila Rajput, CEO of Tomorrow Matters Now (TOMA-Now), explains: “A key driver in this approach is how waste that is being recycled [or recovered] can work as an alternative revenue stream. The economic driver is crucial – you need to be able to guarantee a healthy return on investment in terms of skills and infrastructure development, or you need a fully free market scenario where recyclers are able to sell on to other countries.

“Although recycling has started seriously in the last few years, it is essential to be able to guarantee a steady supply of recycled material in order for beneficiaries to justify setting up new systems, factories, skills and expertise to process materials.”

Rajput cites the example of a big brand owner that might look at increasing the amount of recycled material in its production processes.

In the same vein, industrial symbiosis is a resource efficiency approach where the unused or residual resources of one company are utilised by another, such as energy, water, materials, reverse logistics opportunities, underutilised assets like equipment or warehouse space, expertise and capacity.

In the Western Cape, projections indicate waste generation per year will reach 4.7 million tonnes in 2015 and 5.2 million tonnes in 2020. In 2013, the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism initiated the Western Cape Industrial Symbiosis Programme (WISP) through its green economy initiatives. GreenCape, the official agency set up by the Western Cape Government (WCG) to support development of the green economy, was asked to establish and deliver the programme. Based on WISP’s success, similar programmes were established in Gauteng (GISP) and KwaZulu-Natal (KISP). These are delivered by the National Cleaner Production Centre of South Africa (NCPC-SA), the Department of Trade and Industry’s mandated agency for resource efficiency and manufacturing competitiveness. GISP is co-funded by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Gauteng Department of Economic Development. KISP is co-funded by the KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs.

Through its team of facilitators, WISP addresses industrial symbiosis in all sectors of the economy, including construction and demolition, metals and engineering, and food and beverages. WISP also focuses on particular industrial areas such as the Atlantis Industrial Area.

Sarah O’Carroll, WISP programme manager, says its facilitators do a stock take of companies’ underutilised and discarded resources, and then introduce complementary organisations to one another through a matchmaking process that eventually creates a resource exchange network.


For waste beneficiation and industrial symbiosis programmes to succeed, there needs to be a sound business case and an enabling regulatory environment. A key barrier to the uptake, particularly of secondary materials, is a misperception about the quality and performance of these materials.

Lauren Basson, manager: technical and knowledge of GreenCape, and O’Carroll note that, in some cases, when larger volumes or particular types of material are handled, companies have to have licences to ensure resource exchanges are done legally, which can be a costly and time consuming process, especially for smaller enterprises.

Kirsten Barnes, waste economy analyst at GreenCape, says: “The current standards for roads and construction materials for structures specify materials from natural sources, an approach which excludes the use of secondary materials. However, there is now some movement within the cement and roads sector to include secondary materials in these standards for cement products, as well as new and rehabilitated roads. In terms of mineral waste, the biggest potential uptake of secondary materials is in roads, primarily as an aggregate, because of the volume required.”

Barnes says there is still quite limited uptake in structures because it remains difficult to verify performance, but GreenCape is working with universities to set up the necessary testing processes and facilities.

“We will also be trying to motivate for engineers to include in their geotechnical reports that secondary materials of an appropriate standard can be used for certain applications beyond the construction site they are considering – this recommendation would make the diversion away from landfill to recycling easier,” Barnes says.

Way forward

Despite these barriers, waste materials are increasingly being recognised as potential resources with economic value. Basson highlights the need for an enabling regulatory environment, including material standards and processes to test and certify the performance of secondary materials.

While there have been many claims that economic factors such as the transport and processing of secondary materials make for an unviable business case, private sector initiatives are already happening with very little push because the companies involved can see the economic and social, as well as the environmental, benefits.

In 2009, Sea Harvest initiated a move away from a waste management scenario to develop a recycling value chain that feeds into other industries, with the intention of decreasing waste to landfill and creating a return on investment for the company.

Sea Harvest’s waste beneficiation programme includes food residue – where residual fish from processing (such as skin and bones) is used as raw material to produce fishmeal and animal feed – and recycling of packaging waste, metals (such as scrap metal, light steel and stainless steel), scrap tyres, e-waste, paper and plastic. The company also actively participates in coastal clean ups and monitoring along the coast of their processing plant.

Taking the reuse of food residue further is Jason Drew, founder and director of AgriProtein Technologies, who explains in The Story Of The Fly and How It Could Save The World that creating and discarding nutrients in the form of food waste, sewage and manure has an extremely high environmental impact.

Seven years ago AgriProtein began to industrialise the process of nutrient recycling. “We take existing organic waste nutrients from sources such as food factories, restaurants, hotels and out-of-date produce from supermarkets, and prepare this into a feed for our (fly) larvae… which are fed the organic waste and grow at an enormous rate once you take away the environmental factors that stop this happening in nature. One kilogram of fly eggs turns into 380kg of larvae in 72 hours.

With its products MagMeal, MagOil and MagSoil, AgriProtein supplies the chicken, fish and pet feed industries, as well as supplying organic compost to farmers. And, at the time of writing this article, Drew was in the process of opening five new factories on five continents.

In the construction and demolition sector, Barnes observes that metals, plastics, frames and timber roofing disappear quickly from a site, informally, or are formally recycled if in good condition.

“For the demolition of the decommissioned Conradie Hospital in Pinelands, Cape Town, the contractor, Prema Raciti Construction, brought on board demolitions sub-contractor Fabcor, who separated out the materials and sent the rubble comprising clean concrete, mixed concrete and brick to CDEL Crushing. Fabcor also cleaned bricks for resale; and timber of a reasonable quality was sent to a local furniture manufacturer.”

In some instances, resource exchanges are proving so beneficial that companies are starting to change their business models entirely. In August 2014 at a WISP business opportunity workshop, Enviroserv and Combo Timber Structures were put in touch with each other. Following this match Enviroserv, a major waste management company, modified its clients’ on-site waste management practices so that Combo Timber Structures could collect all reusable and broken wood pallets, diverting them from landfill.

Having previously manufactured pallets strictly from virgin material, Combo Timber Structures, a small family-owned business, now only uses broken wood pallets and other recycled timber packaging material to produce pallets; any unusable offcuts are supplied to the informal market for the production of kennels and fire starters.

Some of the benefits of this initiative include R174 000 generated in additional revenue via the sale of remanufactured wood pallets; 79 tonnes of wood diverted from landfill; and three permanent jobs created by Combo Timber Structures to manage increased wood volumes.

Words: Karen Eicker

The full feature can be found in earthworks magazine issue 28, October-November 2015.