Turn waste into wealth

25 August 2011 - 19:19 By Crispian Olver

For the second time this year, municipal workers are on strike.

The growing pile of rubbish at the end of our street is a smelly reminder of how much trash one street can generate. Nothing shows the inner workings of city services like a strike and, while the labour action is irritating to most people, it also gives us a chance to think about our waste.

As middle-class consumers, our street certainly generates more than its fair share of trash.

Lots of paper, plastic, bottles, cans and glass, which is recyclable

There's the organic waste. Normally this all goes to the landfill, where it quietly rots and generates lots of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

Then some really worrying stuff - batteries, compact fluorescent light bulbs, printer cartridges - which are all highly toxic and should be put in bins in supermarkets, definitely not in the rubbish.

Interestingly, this pile of rubbish has become a hive of activity.

More and more people are picking through the waste, and piling up their carts with cardboard, bottles and plastic, then pushing these off to a privately run recycling operation. And this isn't just our area. Wastepickers in KZN, Benoni and Eastern Cape make a couple of thousand rand a month sorting and selling trash.

There is clearly money in waste.

Municipalities collect a huge amount of waste that is simply dumped every week in landfills which are expensive to run, and have a massive long-term environmental impact.

But municipalities are in need of money.

Isn't there a connection between the potential income in waste and the often desperate financial needs of our municipalities?

People's Power Africa have done a zero-waste study in which they have investigated the feasibility of turning a city's waste into energy.

Megalitres of raw sewage that would otherwise get pumped into the ocean, and tons of organic waste that would normally go into landfills, can be sold to them to be converted into electricity, fertiliser and clean water.

Like Einstein said: "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction."