Waste-to-energy

"For South Africa, diverting wet waste from landfill will become mandatory by law”

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During the Future Cities conference track at African Utility Week (AUW) and POWERGEN Africa in Cape Town in May, Lara van Druten, CEO of The Waste Transformers in the Netherlands, will present a case study on South Africa’s first Waste Transformer at the N1 City Mall in Cape Town. She is also a panellist in a discussion on how waste-to-energy (WtE) plants can be made more competitive.

Can you give us some background on The Waste Transformers and how your organisation started?

The Waste Transformers is an award-winning company on a mission to revolutionise how we deal with waste in a way that is green, clean, entrepreneurial and smart. The Waste Transformers allow businesses and communities to create their own clean energy by transforming their own organic waste on site, in installations housed in shipping containers called Waste Transformers, into green energy. No transportation. No CO2. The Waste Transformer recovers the water and nutrients in the waste, and to give all of these back to the same site. It’s a game-changer, positioned at the heart of the energy, food and water nexus that allows markets, hospitals, airports and local communities, to power their future with good energy whilst realising small-scale circular economies around something that would otherwise be wasted. The Waste Transformers are active globally with current operations in the Netherlands, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Colombia.

Tell us more about your different projects? Any success stories/case studies you can share?

We propose different solutions to different target customers. Each project is a game-changing initiative that will open the power generation market to local businesses, enabling them to operate small-scale waste-to-energy units on-site on a commercial basis.

For example in South Africa, The Waste Transformers and Growthpoint Properties (South Africa), have united to take on the challenge of leveraging end-of-pipeline food waste from shopping malls, to generate a decentralised change in our approach to organic waste in South Africa. An on-site, anaerobic digester (a Waste Transformer) has been installed at N1 City Mall, which is processing the waste from the mall (140 shops and restaurants) to generate clean methane. The methane is used to generate green electricity and hot water inside the Waste Transformer for the mall. The natural fertiliser created is used in the mall’s gardens and local golf court. It is an on-site, smart, green, transportation-free approach to realising zero-landfill.

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, a blueprint for West African megacities is under construction. Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries where 60% of the population is living on less than US$ 1.25 a day. The Waste Transformers partnered with the local waste management company, Masada, to help them divert waste from landfill. This partnership works towards having 40 Waste Transformers around Freetown, operated by local entrepreneurs. They are responsible for their own Waste Transformer, collecting the waste from the neighbourhood, generating energy in a city where many people sit in the dark, and generating much-needed natural fertiliser for local farmers, who are now dependent on expensive artificial (mineral) fertiliser. Once all 40 small Waste Transformers and two large facilities are running in Freetown, we can ensure that at least 290 tonnes of waste per day are no longer going to landfill, but generating value for local communities and the port.

Do you employ the same methodology in all of them? What are the main challenges in this field?

Circularity touches the core of the existence of The Waste Transformers. First, our business model is circular. Raw materials are extracted from the waste, where clean energy is generated and water is recovered.

This additional value creation from waste makes a Waste Transformer interesting for every location that produces organic waste. We stand for access to clean energy, the recovery of scarce natural nutrients and the creation of sustainable jobs. Circularity is also embedded in our design and technology.

Our technology works in many places and, together with our clients, we do a feasibility study on-site to explore the right applications and solutions are provided. Our Waste Transformers all have the same identity and can be adapted to local circumstances. That can be output into cooking gas (to reduce the [environmental] costs of wood for cooking), electricity, heat (for water) or cold (for fridges).

Our growth and impact lie in its repetition. We want a Waste Transformer on every street corner in the world, at every airport, sea terminal, business park, campus, hospital and music festival.

In your view, what are the main challenges with regards to waste to energy on the continent? And what are the opportunities?

We have projects around the world, and Cape Town is running South Africa’s first Waste Transformer. For South Africa, diverting wet waste from landfill is not only important, but it will also become mandatory by law. The World Bank estimates that South Africa produces almost 54 000 tonnes of waste per day—that is the 15th highest producer of waste in the world.

The numbers are difficult to imagine, but it shows how much impact local approaches can have once we start being smart around recycling. The materials (organic waste) are there, now we need to start to utilise them and share the value locally.

South Africa needs jobs to be created. Nutrients in the soil are used by the vegetables produced and end up in cities’ kitchens. Now, it is time to bring those nutrients back from our kitchens to the soil outside the cities to grow new vegetables and keep the soil healthy.

What is your vision in terms of waste-to-energy’s role in the future energy mix globally?

We are committed to scaling up our game, changing technology that has the potential to transform the current waste management systems and practices completely by allowing everyone to create their own energy and become sustainable without the need to rely on the centralised big players.

Our ambition is to have a small-scale Waste Transformer at every hospital, hotel, food processors, trade centre, shopping mall, municipality and street corner, ensuring that waste is processed where it is produced and the energy, water and nutrients are recovered and benefit exactly the same neighbourhood that produced the waste.

The waste market is traditionally dominated by large players who operate as huge logistics machines, transporting waste over long distances with large CO2 emissions as a result. Organic waste is still under-treated as a valuable commodity, which destroys important nutrients in the waste. The digestate, the liquid fertiliser (made from food waste) is an attractive alternative to artificial (mined mineral) fertiliser. During anaerobic digestion, no nutrients are lost, which enables farmers to close the nutrient loop. The other good part about digestate is the organic matter, which can build up the humus content in the soil. For land with low carbon content and arid dry land, it is a huge benefit to use this digestate.

At the same time, electricity production generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in our cities (approximately 67% of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal, oil and natural gas). With this background in mind, we can better understand the powerful impact, decentralised small-scale solutions can have in substantially reducing transportation and landfill limits, whilst fulfilling renewable energy targets.

Congratulations on the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week Global Innovation Award—tell us more about the reasons for winning this?

We are delighted and proud we have won the Global Innovation Award during the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, named by The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. From 160 global entrants who submitted their innovation to Globally Great, we were selected as the winner. The award’s selection criteria comprised the applicant’s ability to present a highly innovative solution to a pressing sustainability challenge, their alignment with the UAE Vision 2021, the solution’s applicability to the UAE, and capability to tackle the water-energy-food nexus.

You are presenting a case study and are a panellist in the Future Cities conference track at the upcoming African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa in Cape Town in May. The session theme is How can we make waste-to-energy plants more competitive? Does the answer lie in smaller more geographically spread plants situated closer to the point of waste disposal?—can you give us a sneak preview of what your message will be at the event?

We are looking forward to this event, to share and learn from everyone attending. Our main message is that we believe waste produced should be reduced to a minimum. We have a cleaner and more circular world when there is no waste.

In the consumer behaviour field, we know when things happen close to people, it has a more significant impact on behaviour compared to when things happen far removed from them. Think about your household waste, put it on the street and it gets collected and transported to an unknown destination. Most of the people have no idea what journey that garbage bag makes. Sustainable valorisation of waste, close to people’s daily life, makes them aware of the footprint they create. Awareness leads to engagement, which leads to education and understanding why people should take care leads to action. We are looking forward to sharing our experience with the audience.

What are you most looking forward to at African Utility Week?

We hope that after the AUW, we are inspired by stories from people who really take positive action against unsustainable practices, who inspire a new generation to reduce the environmental impact we create together. 

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