In a circular economy South Africa has the opportunity to re-skill people currently employed in the recycling industry image credit: Sappi

11 September 2020 – South Africa’s – and Africa’s – efforts to move towards a circular economy could be boosted by improved collaboration and partnerships between public sector, private sector and communities and by decentralising programmes and infrastructure to enable broader participation and progress.

This is according to experts participating in a panel discussion on Opportunities in Transitioning Africa to a Circular Economy, hosted by Messe Muenchen South Africa, organisers of the IFAT Africa trade show, during the virtual West African Clean Energy and Environment trade fair and conference.

The panel, moderated by Prof. Christina Trois, South African research chair in waste and climate change at the University of KwaZulu Natal, considered ways to turn circular economy talk into action, low hanging fruit, and opportunities for a circular economy to drive an effective post-Covid economic response.

According to Kgauta Mokoena, chief director: chemicals and waste policy monitoring and evaluation in the South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and coordinator for the Africa Alliance on Circular Economy a circular economy is focused on the  implementation of initiatives to keep products in the value chain for as long as possible. “This would reduce a linear or horisontal approach with over-production, and ‘take, make and dispose’ practices. It addresses the sustainable use of material and products, and waste, energy, and water efficiencies. It doesn’t introduce something new, but is a continuation of best practice,” he said.

Mokoena added that the South African government provided the regulatory and legislative instruments to enable circular economy implementation, including the proposed extended producer responsibility guidelines, which aim to extend producers’ responsibility for their products to the post-consumer stage of their products’ life cycle.

Participants noted that circular economy goals extended far beyond recycling – they aimed to design waste out and maximise the use of scarce resources such as water and energy. Helen Davies, chief director: green economy at the Department of Economic Development and Tourism in the Western Cape Government, said some measures to advance South Africa’s circular economy goals should include building infrastructure that supports sustainable resource use both at utility scale, and in a decentralised manner. “Diversification of sources and ownership of resources is important for helping to make vulnerable communities more resilient to change,” she said. Davies said there was some low hanging fruit that could have an immediate impact, including enabling smaller scale embedded energy and improving energy efficiency; clearing alien invasive plants and trees from catchment areas and establishing innovation networks to link supply and demand to provide safe demonstration environments.

“The Covi-19 pandemic has pushed the circular economy discussion to the fore, pushing the reset button and creating new opportunities. As we move to get rid of the ‘throw-away society’, we have opportunities to upskill recycling workers to repair products, for example,” says Saliem Haider, circular economy programme manager at GreenCape

Benoit le Roy, Chief Executive Officer and Alchemist at Enviro-One, said collaboration and alignment was needed between public and private sector, and between national and municipal government, to address the resources infrastructure gap. “Infrastructure for water and energy is key, it’s all intertwined with food security, jobs, and more,” he said. Noting that massive infrastructure projects could take years to be delivered, he said: “We must decentralise water, waste and energy to make the packaging of projects smaller, which then lends itself to SMME participation and job creation, cuts the logistics and carbon emissions involved, and delivers the infrastructure faster.”

Le Roy said for much of Africa where limited infrastructure was in place, there was now an opportunity to leapfrog directly to a circular economy beyond the siloed or linear paradigms, and integrate water, waste and energy infrastructure.

According to Betty Sichivula, project director at Messe Muenchen South Africa, organisers of the IFAT Africa trade show, and hosts of the panel discussion, circular economies are not limited to just one area – such as water or waste management – but rather depend on cross sector  initiatives. “IFAT Africa itself is an event closely integrated with other sectors – namely science and analytics, energy and food and beverage production,” says Sichivula.

IFAT Africa is a trade fair for water, sewage, refuse and recycling in Southern Africa, featuring solutions from around the world and a high-calibre forum programme addressing trends, challenges and solutions from the water, sewage, refuse and recycling sectors.

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