Waste management: Legislate, Facilitate, Recycle

Introduction

In the vast majority of countries, landfills are growing at an unsustainable rate. According to the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), 40 percent of worldwide waste ends up in open, uncontrolled dumpsites. As many as 38 of the 50 largest landfills threaten to pollute the sea and coastal areas, while 64 million people are directly affected by them, often with severe health problems. Perhaps worst of all, landfills’ decomposing trash spews climate-altering methane into the atmosphere.

As a young engineer in the 70’s, one of my projects was the building of a refuse pulverizing plant for the City of Cape Town. All the city’s waste was brought to this plant where everything was mashed in great big rotary crushers. Metals were removed using large magnets and plastics taken out through patented rotary screens. The remaining compostables were laid out in wind-rows to decompose before being used as compost for the development of new townships and for sale to the public.  Regrettably, this initiative ended with the retirement of the crushers and the mixed refuse was then compressed and railed to a landfill site outside the city limits. What a great loss to the people and environment of this lovely city.

Examples

The process of sorting and recycling varies tremendously around the world and I’ve jotted down a few examples:  

General recycling in most countries

In some main urban areas aluminium, glass, steel, tyres, paper, cardboard and plastics are recycled. Aluminium has a high value and recycled and virgin aluminium is combined to produce a final product which is indistinguishable from products made from 100% raw aluminium. Glass goes to the nearest glass works where it is blended into the raw material to produce bottles. Scrap steel is added to raw steel for items such as reinforcing bar while some cement plants mix old shredded tyres with coal to fire their kilns and so reduce the cost of cement. Paper and cardboard are sent to paper and board mills for blending with virgin material. Plastics are being categorized, as per the labels shown next to the photo above, for blending with virgin materials. However the material has to be relatively clean to do this. Reject plastic is usually processed by pyrolosis to produce a fuel.  

South Africa

Recycling is generally a privatized affair here. However, the Overstrand Municipality in the Western Cape Province where we live uses a simple system where householders use black bags for landfill and clear bags for recycling (but not compostible materials). Recycling is sorted at the municipal sorting centre, providing much needed employment, while the sorted material is sold off to generate income. Primwood uses recycled plastic to make extremely durable  products which include outside benches and tables (see photo).

In Kwazulu-Natal Province, the “Wildlands Conservation Trust”, an NGO, has entered into agreements with schools and manufacturers to produce prized school desks from recycled plastic. The key here is that it is the children who collect the plastic which is the raw material for making the so-called ‘Green Desks’. This not only serves as a way of reducing litter, but also raises awareness among the children of just how valuable waste plastic can be.

Malaysia

Recycling is also privatized with categories for separation which include ferrous metals, aluminium, electronic waste, soft plastics, hard plastics, glass and Tetrapak products. NGOs, such as Tzu Chi, earn revenue for their causes from the collection process.

Glass recycling is currently only feasible on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia where there is a glass works to receive it. Unfortunately, the cost to transport waste glass from other areas is not economically viable.

On a very positive note, Tetrapak Malaysia has set up a recycling program where organizations are encouraged  to collect used Tetrapak containers to be processed into roof sheets for economic housing developments.

The Tetrapak container was designed to preserve milk and fruit juices for long periods and is based on a cardboard fibre exterior with a thin aluminium layer and polythene plastic inner lining. Until recently, it was difficult to recycle as all these materials are bonded together, but owing to a dramatic increase in consumption, a process has been developed which can separate the layers. Once apart, the fibre is reconstituted as board, while the aluminium and plastic are reworked into sheeting. The board and sheeting can be re-bonded and molded to make roof sheets.

UK

Recycling in the UK varies, but most waste is sorted at source into metals, glass, plastics, kitchen waste and landfill. The UK exports about 60% of its plastic waste for recycling to places like Turkey, Greece, Vietnam, China, Bosnia, Thailand, Romania and Malaysia. These export avenues are quickly closing and the UK is soon going to have to manage their recyclables themselves.

Switzerland

Each Canton manages their own waste with separation at source. (Failure to separate waste into the correct recycling categories could elicit a fine from the ’garbage’ police who track culprits using discarded shopping slips!)

Sweden

In Sweden, less than 1% of their waste goes to landfills.   Recycled solid waste and composted organic matter forms nearly half of what is discarded. The country incinerates most of the rest of its garbage to create the energy that powers its homes and buildings.

Conclusion

“At the current rate, at least 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions will come from the world’s landfills by 2025” 

As individuals managing our waste, the first option is for us to reuse, or repair and reuse an item before we discard it. (Remember the days when we would go to the local shoemaker and have our shoes resoled?) Up-cycling is another possibility if something can be put to another use after it has ended its first useful life. Whenever ordinary folk throw their hands in the air saying that they are powerless in the face of climate change, well, this is a really great example of what we can do to stop waste going into methane-producing landfills.  

And on a national level, why can’t other countries follow the Swedish example? Yes, it requires:

  1. legislation to force people to  separate their waste at source,
  2. facilitation to ensure sorting is reasonably easy,
  3. various processes to recycle where possible and
  4. incineration to burn the rest for energy production.

….but isn’t that preferable to dumping everything in land-fills? Most waste around the world still goes to landfills these days, without any prior sorting, although some sites do siphon off methane gas for electric power and heating. Small comfort.

We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to save our planet, and ourselves, and that includes separating our waste and recycling as much as possible.

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