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Sustainability. It’s been a buzzword since 1987, when it first appeared in a report put together for the UN, the Brundtland Report, that explored how sustainable development could be achieved. Several decades later, the case for sustainability is critical. 

Getting your hands dirty

But how do you take this global imperative, and apply it in your local business context? If you’re a bit daunted by the legislation, regulations, and the wealth of information out there on the subject, and simply want to know how your company can make an impact through managing your business waste responsibly, here’s how to get going.

Why it matters

  • There’s a social contract that exists between businesses, people, and the environment. To create a sustainable future and resilient economies, business has to be approached holistically.
  • According to a 2017 report by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, sustainable business models could open economic opportunities worth up to US$12 trillion and increase employment by up to 380 million jobs by 2030.

Understanding your waste stream

  • A waste stream is a flow of waste, from source to recovery, recycling or disposal. 
  • To gain a better understanding of your business’s waste stream – both the amount and types of waste produced – a waste audit is crucial. 
  • This involves looking at your organisation’s various waste streams to assess it and capture data which will help you put together an integrated waste management plan.

Recycling vs waste management

  • Collecting, transporting and sorting out your waste is one part of the complex process that’s waste management.
  • Then there’s turning that waste into reusable material through recycling. Organic waste, for instance, comprises 56.3% of our country’s general waste. Just by composting organic waste, we can divert a huge amount of waste from landfills, and turn it into something useful. 
  • According to the 2019 South African Plastics Recycling Survey, R2.065 billion was injected into the informal sector through the purchasing of recyclable plastic, creating 58 750 income opportunities.

Frequently used terms

  • Anaerobic digestion: The process by which organic matter (plant or animal-based waste) is broken down, in the absence of oxygen, to produce biogas and biofertiliser.
  • Biogas: A type of biofuel that is naturally produced from the breakdown of organic matter, using nature’s ability to recycle substances into productive resources.
  • Business waste: The waste produced by an organisation.
  • The Carbon Tax Act (15 of 2019): As part of its commitment to transition to a low-carbon economy, government enacted the Carbon Tax Act in 2019. The Act sees companies taxed on direct emissions of R127 per CO² equivalent emitted – a figure that will escalate by 10% annually. 
  • Circular economy: A concept which focuses on building an industrial system that’s intentionally regenerative.
  • CO2 equivalence: The amount or concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) within a greenhouse gas related to its projected impact on global warming.
  • Cradle to grave: Tracking waste from the moment it enters a site to the treatment or disposal of that material.
  • Duty of care: A moral or legal obligation to act in the best interests of others, including ensuring their wellbeing.
  • General waste: Waste that doesn’t pose an immediate hazard or threat to health or the environment.
  • Integrated waste management: A combination of waste management approaches, including: source reduction, composting, incineration, recycling, and landfills.
  • MRF (Materials Recovery/ Recycling Facility): A facility that receives, separates and prepares recyclables for the end user. MRFs will often recover ferrous metal, aluminum, glass, plastics, and mixed paper. 
  • The National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act (39 of 2004): Sets out the national norms and standards regulating air quality monitoring, working to provide reasonable measures for the management of pollution. This includes determining parameters for businesses to comply with the latest amendments.
  • The National Environmental Management: Waste Act (59 of 2008): The bedrock of waste legislation in our country, the Waste Act sets the national norms and standards for regulating waste management across SA, including licensing, compliance and enforcement. Disincentives are currently under review that will include, waste disposal taxes, product taxes and levies on waste streams of various products.
  • On site waste management: Any kind of waste activity (recycling, composting, separating) which takes place at the premises where the waste was originally produced.
  • Organic waste: Any material that’s biodegradable and comes from either a plant or an animal. Most types of food waste comprise organic waste.
  • Separation at source: The separation and recovery of recyclables and other reusable waste from general waste streams at the source of its production.
  • Waste hierarchy: This describes the preferred order of waste management practices, from most to least preferred, offering a systematic and holistic approach to waste management. Waste avoidance and reduction would be at the top of the hierarchy. 
  • Waste minimisation: To do everything possible to avoid and/or reduce the amount of waste and toxicity generated.
  • Waste reduction: Using less material and energy to minimise waste generation, and preserve natural resources.
  • Waste to energy: Using waste to generate fuel or energy in the form of electricity and/or heat.
  • Zero waste to landfill: Waste management and planning approaches that focus on waste prevention and working towards a circular economy.
    For more on waste management terminology, click here.

The difference between organic and compostable waste

  • You’re forgiven if you thought they were one and the same – they’re often used interchangeably but are different in that while all compostable material is biodegradable, not all biodegradable material is compostable.
  • Anything plant, animal or natural mineral-based is usually biodegradable. How long it takes to break down however is dependent on its original composition and how much it’s been processed. 
  • You even get biodegradable bags, papers, and more,  all of which have been made to be biodegradable – i.e. break down until they can be consumed on a microscopic level.
  • On the other hand, something that’s compostable can be broken down into its natural elements within about 90 days.
  • While compostable material breaks down into nutrient-rich humus – not to be mistaken for the dipping-a-carrot-in sort – that enriches soil, some biodegradable materials leave behind a toxic residue.

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