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Johannesburg, South Africa

Turning rubbish into power at Robinson Deep

Saturday, April 5, 2014

 

 

I had an otherworldly experience last week. I went to the top of Robinson Deep in Turffontein, our largest landfill site, and took in a weird world of garbage, swirling birds, huge trucks, and men sifting through it all, against the backdrop of the best view in town. It had all the earthly rawness and energy of a scene from the movie District 9. 

 

Trucks of all sizes roared up the one kilometre slipway, winding their way to the top, and once there, reversed into the garbage, vomiting their loads on to the mountain. No sooner had the garbage hit the ground, than men in gloves and grubby clothing dashed over and started sorting plastic and metal and anything else of value. Filling huge bags, they staggered over to a man with a large scale for their loads to be priced and credited to them. Their bags were emptied into a truck, to be taken to a recycling depot.

 

Dozens and dozens of sacred ibis make a living from the garbage too. They entirely cover the mounds, picking out their lunch, and when the next truck delivers the next meal, they rise up into the air, only to settle eagerly down again.

 

What hits you at the top, where you have a 360 degree view of the city and southern suburbs, is the smell. It permeates the nostrils and never lets up. But the distractions take your mind off it – the trucks never stop, the recycling men never stop, and the huge graders that flatten and level the garbage never stop. 

 

Edward Tjikana, who has worked at the site since 1994, is the supervisor. He was my tour guide. He points to the mounds of sand on the perimeter of the mountain, and says with some pride that they will be used to cover the garbage once it has been flattened. We stand there, taking in the freneticism around us. Trucks divorge everything and anything imaginable – planks of wood, plastic vacuum cleaners, bits of toys, electrical cords, and millions of squashed plastic bottles. Tjikana says the trucks run until 2am, and start again at 7.30am.

 

We drive over to the southern side of the mountain of garbage. This is where the building rubble is deposited so there are no men rummaging, only big graders levelling it. Gerson Tshiru is in charge here. He says since working here in 2007 he has learnt a lot - about recycling, about controlling the smell by covering it, and about methane gas.

 

And that’s really why I’m here – to learn about what the city is doing with the methane gas. The oldest landfill site in Joburg, Robinson Deep opened in the 1930s, and takes up some 124 acres of land. The methane gas it produces is 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. In May 2011, as a result of a flood of complaints about the smell, the city starting flaring the gas. But, in a first in the country, early next year that gas will be converted into power.

 

The city has five landfill sites – one in Dobsonville, Eldorado Park, Ennerdale, and Goud Koppies. Two others, at Linbro Park and Kya Sands, have closed, although of course they still produce methane gas for up to 15 years. 

A network of 68 wells have been sent down into the landfill, to take the gas off for flaring. But come July this year, an independent power producer, Ener-G Systems, will start installation of four generators, and pump 1MW of energy to Eskom, starting early in 2015. Each generator will cost around R10-million, so the total investment for the five sites will be R276-million, says general manager David Cornish. Ener-G has a track record at Richard’s Bay, having installed xx there. It is expected that the project has a life expectancy of up to 20 years.

 

The process started back in 2009, with an application to the department of energy. Then in October 2013 the city was the successful bidder to supply Eskom with power, as part of the Independent Power Producers programme – and the only city council to be doing this in the country. When operating at full capacity, the gas will produce some 5MW of renewable energy per day, enough for up to 5 000 households.

 

When all five landfill sites are operating, it will be the largest landfill gas-to-energy programme in the country, producing an estimated 19MW of power, sufficient to supply 12 500 middle-income households. And making good use of our garbage.

 

The income from the sale of power to Eskom will amount to R800-million a year for the city, which will largely be used to maintain the sites, says the city’s assistant director for integrated waste management, Simphiwe Mbuli. “We believe for the city it’s a good investment.”

 

Meanwhile, the city plugs away at making its landfill sites as decent as they can be. Sites are firstly created by covering the earth with waterproofing, to protect the ground water. Then as garbage goes on to the landfill, it is covered with 150mm of earth, to reduce the smell, and cut down on vermin and flies. Water running off the landfill is channelled away and evaporated. The landfill is also sprayed with disinfectant water so it doesn’t pollute the air. 

 

Mbuli says that the city is looking into other technologies to deal with waste, as the city’s landfill sites fill up. Possibilities are incineration and pyrolysis, the composting of waste. “We are conducting a feasibility study now,” he adds. 

 

Once the landfill sites are exhausted, the land can be used for other things, says Mbuli, like environmental centres or golf ranges. 

 

It doesn’t end there. The city has an impressive separation at source programme. The pilot scheme was started in 2009, and soon was expanded to areas as far flung as Orange Farm in the south, Dobsonville, Modderfontein, Greymont, and Diepsloot in the north, in all almost 400 000 households. Randburg and Roodepoort will come on board later this year, with Midrand bagging its recyclables in late 2015. This means that some 15 000 tonnes of recyclables were  diverted from our landfill sites in 2012/13, with the goal of pushing that to 20 000 tonnes.

 

Those recyclables go to buy-back centres, where some 25 co-ops or SMMEs have been established, creating 500 jobs. They are made up of small informal recyclers with 10 buyback centres, most of which are provided by the city, which will be providing more buy-back centres in the future. At present there are 42 garden refuse sites, 20 of which are operated by SMMEs, and also take in recyclables. The city plans to upgrade all its garden refuse sites to enable recycling.

 

“It should be stressed that the success of the programme depends solely on the citizens of Johannesburg changing their behaviour and appreciating waste as a resource,” says Musa Jack, the executive director of waste minimisation strategy and programmes in the city.

 

She stresses that citizens must play their role as “anything to the contrary will be to the detriment of our environment”.

 

 

 

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