Circular economy

Recycling plastic and rubble into jobs

Charlotte Mathews for Business Day | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on October 27, 2017

A South African company shows how waste recovery could reduce landfill while creating employment

When temporary disability put electrical engineer Siyabonga Shange out of work for two years, making it nearly impossible to get his job back, he started Sbumeister Plastics, a plastics recycling business. Shange sources his plastics with the help of Durban-based USE-IT, a waste beneficiation organization launched eight years ago by an entrepreneur named Chris Whyte.

USE-IT has a partnership with (and funding from) the Durban City Metropolitan Area in the local eThekiwini Municipality, giving Whyte and his team access to the municipality’s waste to create business opportunities and employment for people like Shange.

Umgibe, a co-operative with about 500 members, 95 percent women, also sources plastics from USE-IT, using it to protect vegetable plants from pests or to transform into items such as handbags and coffee tables for sale. The co-operative's members receive training from USE-IT as well. Nonhlanhla Joye, Umgibe's founder, said, “We have got ourselves out of poverty, and Chris Whyte is part of that solution.”

Since 1994, South Africa's government has been trying to address rising unemployment, with little success. In the first quarter of 2017, the unemployment rate among those aged 18-34 was 58 percent—or about eight million people. The nation's recycling industry is relatively underdeveloped, but if more of its waste was turned into a resource, it could create thousands of new job opportunities.

Nonetheless, both USE-IT and the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa (Redisa) —which was founded in 2012 to manage waste tire recycling—have faced intimidating hurdles, in some cases from the government. In May 2017 the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, applied to put Redisa into liquidation after a disagreement with management over the funding model. Redisa’s team is fighting the liquidation order.

Stacey Davidson, Redisa's director, said that in its first four years, Redisa created 3,500 jobs and subsidized more than 200 businesses. With similar impact, USE-IT has created about 2,500 employment opportunities over the last six years. Whyte said that this injection of jobs provided by waste recycling is only a fraction of the potential in eThekwini and South Africa at large. The obstacles that his company has faced include red tape, a shortage of resources, difficulty in accessing funding, and a lack of public awareness about the need for recycling.

Despite these difficulties, USE-IT’s contribution has been recognized by numerous awards. At the The Circular Economy Awards in 2017 the company was nominated as a finalist along with several bigger, better funded projects, and in May it was cited by the South African parliament as an example of green job creation.

Whyte said the public does not yet appreciate the full potential of waste recycling. “People believe they are supporting waste recycling by dropping off plastic, glass and paper at a recycling center. But that is only the first step in the chain. If we don’t put money into developing the value in the whole chain it will not be sustainable.”

He said South Africa's focus is on “clean” waste, such as paper, glass and plastics, while the rest goes to landfill. The total cost of dumping in landfills, including logistics, preparing sites and the loss of land use, is estimated at around 1,000 South African rand (US$77) per tonne—meaning that the country is throwing away about 37 billion rand per year of materials that could be turned to other uses.

Building rubble makes up about 40 percent of South Africa's landfill deposits. And yet, Whyte noted, rubble should have no place in a landfill. USE-IT has developed a compressed brick made from rubble called RamBrick, which the company claims has superior properties to the cement bricks widely used in housing and is significantly cheaper, too. RamBrick has passed all the required standards, but it is proving difficult to persuade developers to use it because of the industry’s resistance to new technologies.

USE-IT is planning to use RamBricks to construct its Hammarsdale Waste Beneficiation Centre in the outskirts of Durban, which will serve as a hub for small business opportunities around waste, a first for Africa.

Whyte’s vision is to place a USE-IT in every urban center in South Africa, but he needs the government’s support to achieve a national roll-out. That would entail two key engagements: widespread public programs to educate the public about comprehensive waste recycling and the financial gains to be had, and the establishment of a Green Development Agency to co-ordinate the diverse and small-scale initiatives across the country.

“eThekwini Municipality has shown the return on investment from diverting waste from landfill and turning it into new products is 1,500 percent,” Whyte said. “Where else will you get that kind of return?”

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Published on October 27, 2017
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