Waste Sources: Sustainability Solutions or the Ponzi System?

Reuse and recycling can only take place far away. Buzz's new phrase in the waste management sector is "zero waste," meaning it does not produce waste at all. Even after reuse and recycling, there is still something to go on. Many ecologists consider this waste as usable energy (energy waste or W.T.E.) as one practical step toward true zero waste. Others see W.T.E. as nothing more than the Ponzi system, as the need for energy provides incentives to produce more waste.

There is no consensus, but a South African case study by the urban scholar Trynose Gumbo advice illustrates the W.T.E. really works in real life.

EThekwini is one of the largest urban areas in South Africa, including Durban and its suburbs. As is typical in the developing world, much of the solid waste stream consists of organic waste. For comparison, richer countries end up with much more metal and glass. However, rganic waste in eThekwini is often poorly disposed of, creating aesthetic and health risks. Waste is left rotten, releasing methane changing climate. The municipality explained that if the gas was released, it could use it the same way.

The theory was that the gas generated by the decomposition of organic material into a landfill could be captured and burned to generate electricity. (Some W.TEE systems burn waste directly as a source of energy, although it produces multiple byproducts). As the Thekwini quickly learned, not every landfill contributes to this process. The first test landfill did not generate enough gas. The other was filled with water and fine sand and clogged suction tubes. The third dump, however, produces a lot of gas and can continue to do so after the closure of the landfill as expected in 2022. The buffer zone around the site helps maintain the wildlife habitat.

Newer W.T.E. instead of a much larger landfill also set off on a rocky start – initially most of the gas was burned rather than extracted. Eventually, the site produced enough electricity to reduce capacity in nearby fossil-fueled power plants. The plant has helped alleviate a number of local problems; the air was clearly cleaned, the wrong disposal was reduced, and the plant was used by local workers.

However, there are some problems. Technology is expensive, so it's difficult to zoom in. There is still no answer to what happens when the overall level of waste begins to fall. Gumbo also makes a controversial claim that there is no waste carbon at all.

There are many large landfills that decompose and produce methane. So far, as Gumbo, W.T.E. it can use gas that would in any case be produced. W.T.E. it can work best as a transitory technology until full renewable resources are taken over.


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By: Trynos Gumbo

Consultation, No. 12 (2014), pp. 46-62

Columbia University

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