Universities of technology eye rich prospects in waste

South African universities of technology are positioning themselves as critical partners in what is considered a fairly new but highly relevant area of research, innovation and job creation: waste recycling and management, an industry conservatively estimated by the government to be worth R25 billion (US$1.6 billion) per annum.

A memorandum of understanding is set to be signed between the South African Technology Network or SATN, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Technology Innovation Agency or TIA – the public entity tasked with getting innovations to the marketplace.

The initiative will harness the resources of universities of technology to build capacity, and formalise growing levels of cooperation around waste management between sectors. A unique masters degree in waste management – a partnership between SATN and TIA – is also in the pipeline.

The 5th Annual Waste Management Summit was held in Umhlanga near Durban last month, attended by 650 representatives of industry, academia, government and waste-pickers.

Speaking on the sidelines, SATN CEO Professor Anshu Padayachee said that there was growing recognition of the benefits of partnerships between universities, industry and government in the joint creation of an entrepreneurship ecosystem as a basis for the creation of a developmental state.

“As universities of technology, we constitute the best institutions to create new curricula and develop entrepreneurs. Industry is the biggest consumer of our product, which is qualified students, but there has been limited investment in return,” she told University World News.

“We would like to see industry invest more in terms of expertise and money to upskill staff and support students in interesting projects. We are open to that kind of partnership."

An enabling environment

“After this conference I think there is a greater understanding of what we can offer in terms of research capacity, in terms of building innovative partnerships and technology stations and converting research ideas into entrepreneurial activities,” she said.

Padayachee said the government had been proactive in creating an enabling legislative environment for partnerships. Another positive development was the establishment of the Waste Management Bureau, which will monitor waste management plans and manage the money derived from government’s waste management charges.

The proposed new masters degree in waste management – aimed largely at biotechnology, engineering and science students – is likely to go some way to providing high-end technological skills.

TIA head of innovation skills development, Senisha Moonsamy, said the two-year programme was at approval stage and would be rolled out towards September this year. A network of international academics had been established to tutor an anticipated 40 candidates, and provide academic support and mentoring.

Dr Anitha Ramsuran, TIA’s manager of strategic stakeholder relations and communications for two provinces, said the issue of waste and its management – now critical in South Africa where approximately 80% of waste still ends up in landfills and over eight million people are without jobs – had more recently been seen as an opportunity for job creation.

Paradigm shift

“There has been a paradigm shift towards the idea of waste as a creator of jobs,” she told University World News. The idea would be to create new skills and foster entrepreneurship at all levels of the value chain, including at the level of waste-pickers.

“We intend to put out calls for new indigenous technologies aimed at pickers, so that waste collection can become a respectable and safe vocation,” she said.

TIA CEO Barlow Manilal said the memorandum of understanding had a number of focal areas, including the application of research, technology and innovation to waste beneficiation and the creation of entrepreneurs at every point along the waste value chain.

He was reassured by the level of engagement evident through the summit. “Around the world waste is a challenge for all kinds of economies and the desire to collaborate was greater than in other sectors,” he said.

However, addressing the increasingly pressing issue of waste management was also about challenging social attitudes. “Society needs to play a bigger role,” he said.

Mark Gordon, deputy director general for chemicals and waste management in the Department of Environmental Affairs, echoed the need for an integrated approach to waste management and acknowledged the role of higher education institutions in developing research methodologies and innovation that could inform development.

Job creation

But universities also had a role in developing the skills needed to take advantage of a recycling and waste diversion industry estimated to be valued at R25 billion per annum.

“There are huge opportunities for job creation among our 27% unemployed people,” he said.

Gordon said even waste collectors at the lower end of the waste recycling chain could benefit from formal vocational training around waste management. “A waste collector should be able to earn a formal qualification and become an artisan; he or she could be recognised as e-waste technician or dismantler,” he said.

“In the waste sector there are conversations between industry, government and higher education; there are memoranda of understanding, collaborations and partnerships. We now need to massify those efforts. There must be an integrated approach – and that’s happening.”

Referring to the Vaal University of Technology electronic waste recycling and management centre, which was launched at last year’s SATN conference, Gordon said his department wanted to see the model that brought together academia, government and the private sector replicated across all universities of technology in South Africa.

“E-waste is the biggest growing waste stream in South African and the world,” Gordon told University World News. Not only does the centre deal with recycling and management of e-waste, but it tries to address unemployment by engendering entrepreneurial thought and innovation among students.

Anshu Padayachee said projects like the Vaal University of Technology e-waste project offered opportunities for students to earn money through entrepreneurial activities, which they could then use towards tuition fees.

The issue of student fees has been the subject of a series of student protests in South Africa over the last six months with the national #FeesMustFall campaign calling for the scrapping of student fees.