“If we rethink the way we deal with our waste, we can not only build a cleaner and more environmentally friendly South Africa - we can also create job opportunities and help combat unemployment.”
So said Prof. Catherina Schenck of the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Social Work Department, speaking at the Pretoria launch of her new South African Research Chair in Waste and Society on 15 August 2018.
The Chair, along with the new Chair in Waste and Climate awarded to Prof. Cristina Trois from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was launched by government under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI). These are South Africa's first ever research chairs on waste management, aimed at transforming the sector while contributing to the country's socio-economic development.
"Given the challenges and opportunities facing South Africa with respect to waste, and the role of research, development and innovation in supporting the sector's transition, the DST is proud to launch the first two research chairs in solid waste management in South Africa, in partnership with the National Research Foundation and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research," said Dr Henry Roman, Director for Environmental Services and Technologies at the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
The South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI)* was established by DST and the National Research Foundation (NRF) as a strategic intervention to improve South Africa's international research and innovation competitiveness in a way that responds to the country's social and economic challenges.
The Chair in Waste and Society will be researching and exploring:
- Job opportunities in the waste economy and waste value chain that can improve livelihoods through the transition away from landfilling in South Africa;
- Business models to support a secondary resources economy, with a particular focus on SMMEs; and
- Strategies towards behaviour change and thus exploring local appropriate strategies for the South African context towards waste prevention, reuse, and recycling.
Further, as the number of established researchers, emerging researchers and postgraduate students in the broad field of waste and society are very limited, Prof. Schenck will also facilitate the development and growth of researchers and research capacity.
The special focus on waste and climate and waste and society are two key elements of South Africa's Waste Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap, intended to support more effective decision-making, the swifter insertion of context-appropriate technology, and strengthened capability and capacity.
Chair For Change: One (Wo)Man’s Waste, Another’s Opportunity
It’s going to be a busy job - there’s a lot of room for improvement.
“We are still sending 90% of our waste to the landfills - and only a tiny portion of our waste is recycled,” said Prof. Schenck. “We need to divert waste from the landfill, and create more opportunities where the waste is.”
An estimated 65% of municipal organic waste, and nearly 100% of commercially exploitable biomass from the agricultural and food processing sectors, is still disposed of on land - resulting in significant potential for greenhouse gas emissions. Yet organic waste presents a considerable opportunity as a resource, whether as compost, bioenergy or high-value product recovery through a bio-refinery.
“On the one hand, we’re going to look at job creation opportunities in the sector - not just the work done by waste pickers, but also the employment opportunities for small businesses and innovative entrepreneurs. If we take our waste and use it instead, whether through recycling or something else, we can address South Africa’s huge unemployment rate.”
That’s a sentiment widely shared at UWC - which was recently declared Africa’s Greenest Campus (yet again). UWC’s Recycling Initiative, for example, receives an average of 70 tons of recycling each month, creates employment opportunities for over 100 people, and sells the recycled materials to help fuel more greening.
It’s not just about the economics of the situation, though.
“It’s also about changing our lifestyles, to think differently about how we use items, and about the waste we generate,” Prof Schenck noted. “We can live much less wasteful lives without sacrificing our standard of living - and in the process improve society as well.”
*UWC held 1 SARChI Chair in 2008 - and currently holds 17 of them, providing leadership in research and capacity-building in areas from Astrophysics and Health Systems Governance, to Visual History, and more besides. And 8 of those 17 UWC SARChI Chairs are women - an almost perfect balance.