Monetising The Circular Economy

The only decisive way we will deal with waste, is if we can make money from it.

We are all aware of the Circular Economy, and I’m certain and also believe that waste is a valuable resource. But that in itself is not enough to make us change our behaviour, nor advise our clients to do the same.

How many of our homes are off grid, powered with solar cells, use rain catchment water and French drains? For us who rely on municipal services, do we play our part to recycle? Do we compost our organics, grow our own vegetables and herbs, and always place our inorganic household waste in the correct bins?

We know how to recycle and offset waste. We study it in school; we write and publish academic articles on the subject. We call this field of study the Circular Economy. But do we really GET it? Overwhelming evidence indicates that we do not.

Waste in perspective
In South Africa we produce enough solid waste to rebuild the great pyramid of Giza every four and a half days. 315 million tonnes is mining waste, while 1.5 million tonnes is plastic waste, of which approximately 80% is still sent to landfills. This is despite our swarm of waste pickers who ensure we recycle 72% of cans and 59% of paper.

But waste is not just solid waste. Every year humanity wastes:

  • 1.3 billion tonnes of food, which is enough to fill about six and a half thousand oil tanker virtually the entire global fleet);
  • 450 billion kilolitres of water, which is equivalent to the entire annual flow of the Nile and the River Ganges put together;
  • 350 Exajoules of energy per year, enough to boil the Antarctic ice cap in just over 10 years. Incidentally, it also suffices that should we successfully eliminate these energy losses, we could end all coal and gas electricity generating capacity – worldwide!

Unlike nature which naturally finds equilibrium, we have built a world where 10% consumes half, 10% doesn’t have any, and 80% feel as if trying will not really make any difference. As Africawide, responsible consultants with sustainable solutions, it is our duty to make sure it does not have to end this way.

Human nature is biased toward short-term thinking
Various NGOs, NPOs, celebrities, ThinkTanks, social advocates and greenies have used similar shock tactics to try and galvanise the world into some action, and sadly, they are failing.

Call me cynical, but I suspect humanity is inherently selfish. If I want my 3-year-old daughter to share her toy with her brother, then I have to bribe her. I must pay her or she will not readily do so unless she sees the sweetie that’s in it for her.

I believe the same applies to humanity and recycling. It is easy to justify a triple, or quadruple bottom line if things are going well. But when hardship strikes, well, then we turn a blind eye to the earth’s plight. We scheme, we lie, we retreat. Think of VW, the Brazilian meat scandal or the US withdrawing from the Paris climate accords. These are the sad actions of wealthy, respectable companies and countries.

You see, unless we monetise waste, I believe we are forever going to be fighting short-term greed at the behest of long-term gain.

So, what is the Circular Economy?
The first word, Circular, stems from the circular systems found in nature. Mufasa probably gave the best explanation of the Circle of Life to Simba:

  • Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. Asking, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.
  • Simba: But, Dad, do not we eat the antelope?
  • Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.

When nature recycles, it takes something beautiful and makes something equally beautiful.
The second word, Economy originates from Greek οίκος – “household” and νęμoμαι – “manage”. Participating in the Circular Economy means our households are managed so that we convert everything we use into something of equal or greater value.

Our households extend beyond our homes, to include our clients, their businesses, our communities, and our environment. When we manage something, it is a considered effort. We analyse, prioritise and optimise. When we convert something to increase its value, well then we’re talking about MAKING MONEY.

The Zaballeen of Cairo…
The Zaballeen had nothing going for them. As poor subsistence farmers, they migrated to Cairo in the 1940’s. They were religiously marginalised and often persecuted. Initially, things were so rough that they had to buy food waste from the hay-day waste collectors to feed their pigs.

But, desperation breeds innovation. The Zaballeen needed fresh food waste for their pigs and wanted to collect household waste themselves. At first, they had to pay the original waste collectors to do so. Later they managed to do so at no charge. What was in it for them? The inherent value of the waste.

The Zaballeen formed micro-recycling enterprises. They managed their waste. They treated it as businesses. They invested and optimised. They bought tools and studied recycling methods. They made crafts. They sold their fabrics in New York. They were entrepreneurial.

By the early 2000’s they were managing about a 3rd of Cairo’s waste, recycling 80%, without costing the populace a cent. Today about 50 000 Zaballeen recycle 15 000 tonnes of waste daily. That is enough product to fill 600 super-links per day.

They are making money.

Recycling the unrecyclable
From our planet’s perspective, nothing is non- recyclable. Slowly but surely, even our continents are getting melted and remade. We should be thinking the same way.

One of the trickiest wastes in the world to handle is microparticles. Particles less than 10 microns in size, or PM10 (a measure for air pollution) and are known to cause health problems.

The largest creator of these micro particles is not the manufacturing sector, but rather the mining sector. Most of the time Johannesburg is covered in a faint dusty haze, because a fifth of dumped mining slimes are smaller than 10 microns. Ideally, we would throw these dumps back down the mines where they were created, but as the mines are still active, this is not an option.

Thevia, a South African company, melts recycled plastic and mining slimes to create a 99.4% recycled material. They then compression mould the material into green roof tiles. Because the particles are so small, they create an incredible blend with molten plastic during the compression moulding process, resulting in a material that has compressive strengths rivalling steel. These roof tiles are a quarter of the weight of normal concrete or clay tiles, yet are twice as strong, and not brittle.
Their business case is built on selling roof tiles and construction supports. They use 70% unrecyclable waste. They are taking something of no value, and creating value. They are going to make money.

Don’t forget wasted space and human potential
On the 8th of May 2017, the Lagos State Government disclosed that there are over 60 abandoned buildings belonging to the Federal Government in the Lagos Island Central Business District.

Lagos is a city with 14 million people and the problem with Lagos is access. The government can’t use those buildings as it will require commuters three hours of fighting through traffic in the morning to get to them, and another three hours in the afternoon to simply get out. They also cannot convert them into housing, because the people living in downtown Lagos are too poor to pay rent.

How can we utilise waste and provide a sustainable, value molding alternative? How about hydroponic farming? It is well-established fact that hydroponic farming yields are about 4x those of the soil equivalent. Growing seasons last the entire year and the constant provision of the correct nutrients optimises the growth of every crop. In South Africa, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries are favourite hydroponic crops.

A 10 story building can yield 29 tonnes of Swiss Chard per month straight to the city centre markets; washed and cleaned. At a 10% discount to super market rates, that yields a revenue of approximately R1 million per month. Rental in the same building would have earned approximately R 600 000 per month.

But we’re consultants, not entrepreneurs
Being an entrepreneur is a mindset, and not a vocation. At Africawide, all of us are already in the entrepreneurial business. We diagnose areas with optimisation potential. We solve problems and recommend solutions. We make it happen. What is more, we have the privilege of bringing fresh perspectives to our clients and their operations.

In the coming year with Africawide, let us be entrepreneurial in our thinking. Let us identify those sources of waste that our clients do not even see. Let us bring them value creating solutions through which they can either cut costs, or increase their revenue, and in the process, let us save the earth!



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