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Synthesis/Regeneration 44   (Fall 2007)

Why a Zero Waste Energy Approach
Is the Only Sustainable Energy Future

by Muna Lakhani

Regardless of our personal opinions, climate chaos (climate change is far too mild a term for the reality) is at the top of the international agenda. Certainly, one can argue that other matters are more critical, but that is the reality.

The hype between the denialists, the “scientists,” [1] the realists and the doomsayers, diverts attention from the base of the problem. No one is speaking about the fact that it is overconsumption by the rich that is generating such massive negative social, environmental and economic impacts, or that so many of the responses to climate chaos are simply further forms of colonization — be it the rampant destruction of rainforest for biodiesel or ethanol production (leading to a doubling of hunger in Brazil while doubling ethanol exports), or the simple moral and ethical poverty of those seeking to solve the problem, as a rule. [2] These impacts are real — not in the future, today. In late 2006, the price of tortilla flour in Mexico, which gets 80% of its corn imports from the United States, doubled thanks partly to a rise in US corn prices from $2.80 to $4.20 a bushel over the previous several months. [3]

The American economist Lester R. Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, is leading the warning voices in the North: “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its two billion poorest people who are simply trying to stay alive is emerging as an epic issue.” The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year.

No one is speaking of banning personal vehicle ownership; or insisting that cars be manufactured to the highest energy efficiency standards, with speed regulation built-in and limits to engine size; increased taxes; and so on. Energy efficiency can produce savings of 10–50%. Fiscal measures like scrapping global subsidies on fossil fuels would cut CO2 emissions by 18% (according to the IPCC). Taxing CO2 emissions in Sweden caused an 11% drop.

Industry accounts for around 30% of CO2 emissions and could make deep cuts through retrofitting for fuel efficiency, sustainable transport and recycling. [4] These are simple, effective steps, but they are not on any mainstream agenda.

When ever did you hear that exports of resources to the North will be banned by anyone from the South? All we hear in the South is “export-led economic growth” — nothing else! Followers and critics of the now infamous “trickle down theory” of economic benefit to the poor will concur that in the last 30 years, the basic premise of this theory, that when an economy grows the poor benefit, has been well demolished — poverty and wealth gaps have increased, the exact opposite of what autistic economists would have us believe.

Given that 25% of the world’s population consumes 80% of the resources, it is clear even to the most limited thinker that this simply cannot carry on and still result in adequate resources and energy for all in any sort of equitable manner. Even the demands for China and India to generate lower fossil fuel emissions are devoid of any moral and ethical basis if analyzed on a per capita basis (the only equitable way in which to share global resources — anything else is either simple racism or further colonialism). To reach equity, China and India could safely double emissions, and the USA would have to cut current emissions by at least 50%.

Obviously, the ideal would be for all to move towards energy sustainability, but the point is made. The rich do not care about the well-being of the poor. It is time we in the South accept this simple fact.

We in the poor South must exert pressure on our governments to halt the wholesale rape of our resources for the benefit of the rich Northern minority. This must be accompanied by the diversion of resources to seeing to the needs of the populace at large in our countries, with any possible exports only taking place if it can be solidly proven that our people have been well taken care of.

… we must legislate the reduction of the use of resources by the rich in our own countries.

Second, we must legislate the reduction of the use of resources by the rich in our own countries. The Gini Coefficient (a problematic but indicative means of measuring gaps between rich and poor in a country) in South Africa is one of the worst in the world, rising from 0.68 in 1991 to 0.77 in 2001, [5] which has been exacerbated by our democratic, yet still mentally colonized, neo-liberal government. This wage gap also indicates that we have a growing Black elite, who are benefiting from preferential government procurement.

While in and of itself the sharing of the economy with the previously marginalized is a good thing, the debate around, for example, limiting car ownership while promoting public transport, is being played out in racial terms. A typical response has been “White people have had cars all these years, and now that Blacks are beginning to afford them, you want them not to have cars? This is racism!” One can well imagine from which sources this sort of disinformation flows.

And third is the systemic and systematic changing of the shape of the local economy to implement the best practices of a Circular, Sustainable, or Zero Waste Economy. Many of these have been the mantra of the worldwide Greens for years:

1. Local production for local consumption, particularly of food and energy. This model will promote organic and urban agriculture, based on limited input costs, no chemicals (petro-chemicals again!) and control up to retail by the grower, as far as possible. [6]

2. Immediate and massive investment in efficient public transport. For example, in my coastal city of Durban in eThekwini Municipality, we could generate a large amount of the electricity we use from the offshore tidal current, the underwater, constant and non-stop “river” in the ocean, and use this energy to power electric trams (which do not use energy while idling!) which would make for an elegant and sustainable transport solution.

3. The diversion of all waste away from landfills and incinerators. The fact that these Circular/Sustainable/Zero Waste economies generate more dignified work for more people, leading to various kinds of stability and social cohesion, cannot be ignored any longer.

4. The production of alternative fuels and energy sources. This is a critical area of response — the current situation (as experienced in the South) can only be called a “mad rush” towards agriculture-based biofuels, but will simply not deliver the best solution.

Food for fuel is both unjust and immoral, and should be considered unethical, while a single child goes hungry in the world. So of course a massive efficiency and public transport drive is critical, but there will still be a need for liquid fuel, so how shall we produce that? In true Zero Waste philosophical thinking, taking a few problems and combining them into one solution would be worthy of consideration.

What if we used low flush toilet technology (reducing both water demand and requirements for massive pipelines and chemical and energy intensive treatment infrastructure), built biodigesters as close to sources as possible in various economies of both scope and scale, piped the methane gas produced for local use (or liquefied and transported where required, where local consumption is not feasible), and used the nutrient rich water outflows to grow algae for oil-into-biodiesel production? [8]

Food for fuel is both unjust and immoral while a single child goes hungry in the world.

In the space of less than 20 golf courses, South Africa could replace all its imported oil. The waste from the process (which in itself conditions the water even further, with no chemicals) would supply a valuable and high quality animal and fish feed, diverting even more grown protein towards sustainable and organic local food supply, and produce large amounts of glycerine for soap and other such products, reducing the need for petro-chemicals even further.

The water from the algae production process can be used for further food production, being nutrient rich, and at worst go through constructed wetlands, including space-saving vertical or underground ones, to finally treat the water for safe release back into the environment.

China has over 15 million biodigesters, with production being ramped up to an additional million a year. The fact is that algae-based biodiesel production has the highest fuel return per square hectare/acre in the world, outstripping traditional biofuel crops:

Why even bother with food crops for fuel, other than to continue to play into the hands of those who wish to own all the food seed in the world through GMOs, or the fossil based demand for fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides?

The signs are clear — the solutions equally so — do we have the necessary will to turn the planetary devastation around, or shall we simply lie down and let the exploiters see to our premature demise?

Muna Lakhani is National Coordinator for the Institute for Zero Waste in Africa, a not for profit South African NGO. He can be reached at zerowaste@iafrica.com


1. In inverted commas, as scientific independence is very much dependent on who is funding the research.

2. The Indonesian Government has just announced plans to clear three million hectares of forest to create palm oil plantations dedicated to biodiesel production. Sara Sharpe. March 2006, BirdLife’s World.

3. C. Ford Runge & Benjamin Senauer. How biofuels could starve the poor. Foreign Affairs,May/June 2007

4. Guy Dauncey with Patrick Mazza. 2001. Stormy weather: 101 solutions to global climate change. New Society Publishers.

5. Craig Schwabe. July 26, 2004. Fact sheet: Poverty in South Africa. Human Sciences Research Council, cashwabe@hsrc.ac.za

6. The author has written a document on Zero Waste Based Multiculture available upon request by email to muna@iafrica.com

7. Zero Waste is a goal that is both pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health. Zero Waste International Alliance. 2004

8. Visit http://www.energybulletin.net/2364.html where they show that results obtained the US Departmentt of Energy-funded 18 year “Aquatic Species Program” at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory demonstrates that it is possible to generate all of the US car vehicle fuel needs on the equivalent of 3.2% of South Africa’s landmass with a less than 4 year payback period. South Africa will need much less for it’s own 100% locally produced liquid fuels demand.

[25 jan 08]

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