The purpose of the National Environmental Management Waste Act, 2008 (NEMWA) is to reform the law regulating waste management, in order to protect public health and the environment. Among the wide-ranging topics that NEMWA addresses is the establishment of a national waste information system and provision for the licensing and control of waste management activities. While society increasingly recognises the importance of promoting recovery, recycling and reuse in sustainable development, this has to be balanced against potential health issues. The current reality is that waste disposal remains the principal way of dealing with waste in South Africa as evidenced by an estimated 1 200 active landfill sites. The fact is that defining ‘waste' is by no means as easy as it appears, and it is difficult to establish an integrated approach to waste management.
The National Waste Management: Amendment Bill, which was approved by Parliament on 28 February 2014, seeks to address some of the challenges of waste management by amending the definitions of ‘waste', ‘reuse' and ‘recovery'to provide more clarity and certainty. While the Bill is still a ‘work in progress', it is a significant step forward. Recognition is being given to waste that is being put to beneficial use, although the proposed regulations are still struggling to adequately address situations where material reverts to being waste, or a portion of it was never recovered and used for a value adding purpose. The latest Bill also introduces ‘Schedule 3', a comprehensive list of what constitutes ‘waste', divided into hazardous and general waste. The use of the term ‘by-product' has been removed in order to provide more legal clarity on ‘waste', ‘recovery' and ‘reuse' of waste.
The case for fly ash
An important debate in the building materials industry is whether fly ash should be classified as a ‘waste', and whether it should be regarded as hazardous. It would seem to be totally unwarranted to classify it as ‘waste' when Ash Resources, South Africa's leading manufacturer and supplier of fly ash products, pioneered the recycling of a material that was originally considered a waste product of the Eskom coal-fired power stations. For over thirty years, the company has been processing it into value-added cementitious building materials for the local cement and concrete industries.
Ash Resources has also developed fine fly ash inert fillers for plastics and rubber products, while the company's ongoing research is opening up an exciting range of applications in mining and waste management. Today, the local demand for processed fly ash products exceeds 2 million tons a year.
The company operates five plants that receive the raw fly ash through direct links to Eskom's coal-fired power stations and process it into fit-for purpose products, which are sold in compliance with technical specifications SANS 50450 and SANS 197. Fly ash is virtually zero carbon rated and its development by Ash Resources is playing an important ‘green engineering' role in South Africa's cementitious building materials by reducing process and energy input, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and reducing the consumption of non-renewable natural resources. During the last ten years, the use of Ash Resources' products by the local cement, readymix and construction industries has saved over 17,5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the coal-fired power stations are continuing to dispose of a significant amount of ash material on landfill sites, which would logically be classified as ‘waste'. The problem of defining when a material has a ‘waste' status and when it does not is one of the issues complicating the drafting of waste management regulations.
The health issue
"South Africa is taking a different approach to categorising fly ash," comments Professor Richard Kruger, President of the SA Coal Ash Association. "While obviously benefiting from monitoring the overseas regulatory developments, the Department of Environmental Affairs is not trying to emulate Europe or the USA. In the USA, fly ash was never referred to as ‘waste' but rather as a ‘by-product' in their Resource Conservation Recovery Act and the main concern is whether a material is hazardous or not. In Europe, the implementation of the Waste Framework Directive and compliance with the European Chemical Agency's REACH* criteria facilitates the categorisation of fly ash as a by-product. NEMWA excludes this option but includes the possibility of exemption for fly ash."
The trace element content of South African fly ash differs from that in the northern hemisphere and the concentrations of many of the toxic elements (e.g. arsenic) are much lower than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Normal handling precautions for a powdery material need to be taken i.e. goggles should be worn. Exposure to eyes and skin should also be minimised because fly ash is alkaline and can cause irritation. Testing in terms of GHS indicated that there could be harm to aquatic life but normal environmental good practice says that materials of any sort should not be dumped in rivers or lakes.
The next step
The National Waste Management: Amendment Bill makes provision in Section 74 for the Minister to exempt or exclude any waste stream or portion of a waste stream from the definition of ‘waste'. This would seem to be a logical approach to classifying South Africa's vitally important processed fly ash. "The Amendment Bill is definitely a step in the right direction," says Professor Kruger. "But I believe it could still be made clearer. The Bill will now be presented to the National Council of Provinces and we await any new developments."
The role of Ash Resources
"Ash Resources contributes immensely to the country through reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases," commented Ash Resources MD, Tshepiso Dumasi. "Most importantly, the company is positively contributing to the country's National Development Plan through employment. However, this can be accelerated if processed fly ash is exempted from NEMWA as a hazardous waste. The exemption would lead to avenues of ash usage in other sectors, which will require more labour to develop thereby reducing unemployment in our society."
*REACH is a regulation of the European Union adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals.
NOTES TO EDITORS
A world leader in building materials, Lafarge employs 64,000 people in 62 countries, and posted sales of €15.2 billion in 2013. As a top-ranking player in its Cement, Aggregates and Concrete businesses, it contributes to the construction of cities around the world, through its innovative solutions providing them with more housing and making them more compact, more durable, more beautiful, and better connected. With the world's leading building materials research facility, Lafarge places innovation at the heart of its priorities in order to contribute to more sustainable construction and to better serve architectural creativity.
In South Africa, the company manufactures and supplies cement, aggregates, readymixed concrete, gypsum plasterboard and interior building fittings. It focuses on providing solutions to help the sustainable development of better cities that benefit the country's people. Through having a strong presence in all of its business lines, it is in a unique position to contribute to urban construction, while also helping to build better cities, rural towns and villages.
Lafarge South Africa also demonstrates active concern for the conservation of the country's wildlife heritage and is a major supporter of the world's first dedicated baby rhino orphanage in Limpopo Province.
Additional information is available on the website at www.lafarge.co.za
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