The hum of moving garbage trucks and the squawks of scavenging birds at a sprawling landfill on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa, may seem to some like an unlikely location for a massively successful renewable energy project.
However, the generation of renewable energy by landfills in eThekwini Municipality in Durban is inspiring a host of countries across the world to undertake similar projects to convert methane gas emitted by dumps into electricity.
According to the United States Environment Protection Agency, landfill gas is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills. It is composed of roughly 50 per cent methane (the primary component of natural gas), 50 per cent carbon dioxide (CO2) and a small amount of non-methane organic compounds. Methane is a greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
The Durban Landfill Gas-to-Electricity Project which first started in 2004 is funded by the World Bank. It involves extracting methane from landfills in eThekwini Municipality and using it to run generators that produce electricity for the local grid. The process reduces the gas’ impact on the climate and provides a cleaner energy source.
The electricity produced from the landfill gas is sold to eThekwini Municipality’s Electricity Department. The project provides the municipality with approximately three megawatts of electricity.
“Every year, an estimated 11.2 billion tonnes of solid waste is collected worldwide and decay of the organic proportion of solid waste is contributing about 5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions,’” says Keith Alverson, Director of the UN Environment Programme’s International Environmental Technology Centre. “Durban’s landfill project clearly shows that if cities follow its example, they reap a range of benefits including a reduction in emissions, power generation and job creation.”
Marianhill landfill site in Durban, South Africa. Photo credit: BBC World Service
The project has improved the air quality in the area by reducing the amount of landfill gas released into the atmosphere and by diminishing the negative effects of coal transport and coal mining, such as dust and acid mine drainage. To date, Durban’s landfills have avoidedapproximately 2.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. It has also benefitted local air quality by reducing emissions of seloxanes, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides.
"The community in this area are aware of the project and know what it's about. The benefit to them, really, is that it's taking the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere,” said the site engineer for Mariannhill landfill in eThekwini, John Parkin. “It also takes out the odour of the landfill site at the same time, so it is less odorous than it was”.
The Mariannhill landfill site in Durban, South Africa. A project that is part of the UN's Clean Development Mechanism - designed to reward developments that lead to a measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: BBC World Service
The improved landfill has also prevented liquid runoff from polluting groundwater and prevented the breeding of disease-carrying animals like rats as well as flies.
Green areas filled with native plants create buffer zones around landfill sites and some 700,000 trees have been planted. The Mariannhill landfill in particular now serves as an important natural corridor for migratory species and is contributing to preserving an indigenous ecosystem and minimizing biodiversity loss in the area.
Moreover, nearly 2,000 people have been educated in the landfill’s conservation and waste management principles.
“By making changes to the way we operate and by reducing our carbon footprint, we are leading by example and building a new resilient city. By employing and empowering nearby communities, the city is not only creating employment but developing an army of green warriors that will spread the message at grass-roots level,” says Zandile Gumede, Mayor of eThekwini Municipality.
Aside from its benefits to the environment and the surrounding neighborhoods, the project actually generates a net profit to eThekwini Municipality through electricity and carbon credit sales.
In 2017, eThekwini Municipality received an Honorary Climate and Clean Air Award from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) for the landfill project which it described as the first in Africa, and which is still one of the most successful in the world.
A major actor in the Durban Landfill Gas-to-Electricity Project was eThekwini Municipality itself. It has already assisted Botswana, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, Mauritius, Iran and Malaysia with landfill operations and landfill gas projects. The potential for the project to inspire other countries to #SolveDifferent seems limitless.
The UN Environment programme and waste management
The UN Environment programme promotes the sound waste management through our International Environment Technology Centre, which works with governments around the world to help them reduce waste and manage it effectively. We also participate in the Global Partnership on Waste Management, which aims to enhance international cooperation, raise awareness, build political will, and develop capacity to promote resource conservation and resource efficiency.
The UN Environment programme hosts the joint secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, multilateral environmental agreements that regulate the transboundary movement of waste, the import of hazardous chemicals, and the production and use of persistent organic pollutants, respectively.
It also serves as the secretariat of the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production, which promotes sustainability and waste reduction across a range of sectors, including tourism, construction, the food industry, and public procurement.