Just over a fortnight ago, Interwaste – a JSE-listed South African waste management company – announced that it had launched South Africa’s first Refuse-Derived Fuel plant. The plant, it said, aimed to reduce waste to landfill and pioneer general, industrial and municipal waste to alternative fuels, ensuring less reliance on South Africa’s vital resources and resources that are carbon intensive.
The current plant, which is the first of four lines, is expected to see a minimum of 12,000 tonnes of waste converted to alternative fuel annually for use in the South African manufacturing sector, said Taki Simeli, spokesperson for the company. In future, as the project expands, the aim is to increase to 24,000 tonnes and ultimately 100,000 tonnes per plant per annum.
The first plant was imported in 2015 and is located in a facility in Germiston, where it produces a solid recovered fuel to European-specified standards. If all goes well, the expansions are set to open in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape.
The use of refuse-derived fuels allows companies to lessen their reliance on fossil fuels, which have a high environmental impact, including acid mine drainage and reject coal. “As such, not only are businesses able to drastically improve their emissions profile, but able to pay back their investment within […] five years, where the fuel is substantially more economical,” says Allan Willcocks, Interwaste’s CEO. But, he adds, the key challenge may lie in convincing companies to make the initial investment in RDF. “We are not in this alone. It is up to corporate South Africa to understand the benefits of such solutions to their bottom line, and the environment, in order for us to make the change we want to see,” he said at the time of the launch.
The country’s White Paper on Renewable Energy (2003) set a target of 10,000GWh of energy to be produced from renewable energy sources by 2013, with a detailed update on the state of energy released in 2015. In terms of electricity production, South Africa is blessed with no shortage of sun or wind. But, says Mike Nicholls, Director of Technical Services at Interwaste, our potential for RDF should also not be underestimated. South Africa generated approximately 108 million tonnes of waste in 2011, of which 98 million tonnes was disposed of at landfill; Nicholls says we currently generate around 100 million tonnes a year, of which around 70% is combustible. Some of it can be used to make fertilizer, paper, or plastic – “but what you can’t recover, you should combust,” he says.
“Refuse-Derived Fuel really gained traction because of the economics of it,” he explains. “There’s a large incentive to do something clever.” So far, South Africa has been behind in this respect. The UK, for example, ships around three million tons of waste abroad per annum for use as fuel, literally generating income from rubbish.
There’s also room to generate income through green incentive points. Similarly, in the UK, biomass (sawdust) pellets can be traded for 180 pounds per ton owing to the green incentives attached. For South Africa, which has a relatively large volume of combustible waste, but may not have the funds available to process this in recycling farms, there’s the potential to generate electricity from municipal waste and become involved in the trade of green incentives.
But the primary problem with RDF thus far has been that South Africa could not afford it. The European model, which relies on extremely sophisticated technology, costs around 45 Euros per ton of waste. The waste is typically flipped, screened and sorted, usually using advanced equipment with a price tag to match, and what can’t be recovered is then shredded to make RDF. It then undergoes further processing, using technologies such as optical sorting and density separation. The organic portion is composted and the rest, which is then typically still too wet for use but has a caloric value, is dehydrated. It’s effective, but it’s simply too costly for the South African market – both producers and consumers of RDF.
Interwaste opted to take the arguably controversial step of investing in people rather than technology. The plant is entirely reliant on its staff, with waste separation being done manually rather than mechanically. To prevent contamination at the facility, employees visit clients’ sites and help them to separate their waste.
The waste, only once separated, goes into the RDF system. The team of staff working at the plant has grown to around 450 people and continues to increase. In this area, at least, an unfavourable exchange rate has its advantages; processing costs are significantly lower when waste separation is done by people rather than imported equipment.
The South African method has other advantages, too, says Nicholls. Local fuel is much cleaner and higher in calorific value, with a much lower ash content, as well as lower sulphur and metals. The average value of the South African fuels produced at the plant so far has been around 24 MJ/kg; the European average for equivalent fuels is around 16 – 18. In some cases the local fuels have come in at over 27 MJ/kg – the equivalent of an A-grade coal.
Currently, the plant is servicing the cement industry, because this is one of the larger consumers of RDF, and many of the cement producers have existing European contracts. However, the idea is to expand to the boiler technology industry, and also the power industry. The first step in this direction has been to secure a contract with the Drakenstein municipality, where the relatively small amount of waste generated in this area, when recycled, can nonetheless supply electrical energy to the municipality.
It’s an experiment worth watching. The Telegraph last year reported that Britain’s three million tonnes of waste exports could power 450,000 homes; for South Africa, facing hikes in energy tariffs as well as the cost of basic living expenses, such a reprieve could prove a lifeline. Especially since RDF’s major selling point is arguably that it is not subject to the same price volatility as fossil fuels.
At the moment, the Germiston plant is dealing primarily with waste from corporate clients that have removal contracts. But in the long term, says Nicholls, RDF can harness the existing power of the country’s informal sector. “The South African recycling economy is driven by hawkers,” he explains. “We also have a lot of unemployed people living in urban areas. This industry has the potential to create a lot of jobs.” DM