Engineering sustainability: "A more regenerative economic system"

In South Africa, engineers are looking to move away from the mentality of 'take, make and dispose of' | By Uyapo Majahana

Engineering sustainability: "A more regenerative economic system"

At a time when the world is looking to adapt to the effects of climate change, organisations like Sappi Southern Africa are using their engineering expertise to avoid overly extractive and polluting practices.

Sappi, a pulp-making company, has traditionally been reliant on coal, which has adverse environmental and health consequences. But today Sappi's Tugela Mill in Mandeni, has been set to manufacture fuel rods that can be used as a coal replacement.

Moving away from 'take, make and dispose of'

The cost-effective fuel rods comprise a mixture of coal slurry, biomass and Sappi's lignin-based binder and results in reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Alex Thiel, Sappi Southern Africa CEO said once production is ramped up, the mill will produce enough fuel rods to replace coal at Sappi's other mills.

"Throughout the world, there is a growing recognition of the necessity for a more circular global economy. We are dedicated to moving away from a 'take, make and dispose of' model of production to a more regenerative economic system aimed at minimizing waste and making the most of scarce resources," said Thiel.

As a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact since 2008, the company has also dedicated itself to environmental responsibility as prescribed in Chapter 30 of Agenda 21, of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, as well as to the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies as defined in Agenda 21 of the Rio Declaration.

Since Sappi operates in an energy-intensive industry, its fuel choices have a major impact on carbon emissions. But their engineering novelty seems equal to the task of minimizing potential health problems.

"We are currently exploring and developing novel technologies for fuel shift and deep decarbonization with a particular emphasis on energy, pulping, papermaking and bleaching. To exemplify this, our latest expansion project at Saiccor Mill (Project Vulindlela) will not only half fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and reduce sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 37%, but it will also improve water use efficiency by 17% and reduce waste to landfill by 48%," Thiel said.

Citizen-led development

The company is also involved in providing educational services for the local community. These include helping towards early childhood development (ECD) by supporting the training of ECD practitioners, providing structured technical-vocational skills training and identifying candidates for artisan positions.

“In recognition of the dynamism of today’s world, and the rapid change of skills it demands, Sappi continues to invest in bursary programmes in disciplines ranging from chemical, industrial and mechanical engineering to megatronics as well as  leadership development programmes, to make sure that we have people equipped for current and future challenges,” Thiel said.

He added that their involvement in the community is based on a philosophy that focuses on a citizen-led development approach, using the assets already at their disposal to encourage entrepreneurial activities and the founding of micro-businesses. They encourage this alongside the young people who work as social mobilisation agents under the Abashintshi programme.

“One of our ESD programmes, Sappi Khulisa, funds small growers with an interest-free loan, free seedlings and extension services to equip growers with the skills to manage their farms productively and in accordance with environmental regulations. Currently, the programme involves over 3,644 growers who supply timber to Sappi mills to supplement the timber grown by Sappi’s forestry division; as well as approximately 103 small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) who are involved in silviculture, harvesting, loading, short- and long-haul activities."

“The aim is to uplift rural communities through equipping them to become sustainable participants in the forestry value chain, rather than subsistence farmers,” said Sappi’s CEO.

Photo by Charl Folscher / Unsplash

Citizen science and the power of collaboration

Sappi is not alone in this endeavour in South Africa. Other organizations like Ground Truth are involved in the development of tools that allow communities to engage with their environment in a meaningful way. Ground Truth encourages a Citizen Science mentality so that locals can learn about and monitor water resources more effectively.

Separately, the South African Academy of Engineering promotes the technological welfare of the country by marshalling the knowledge and insights of eminent members of the South African engineering profession—who in turn keep government policy debates technically informed and thought-provoking.

Nonetheless, Jeshika Ramchund, a professional civil engineer who works as a consulting engineer, is sceptical about the positive impact that her profession can have on the planet without widespread change.

She said her 12 years of experience in the planning, design and implementation of infrastructure and development projects have taught her that holistic and lasting results are born out of a dedication to upholding ethics across different disciplines.

"Although by our very nature engineers are problem solvers, our hands are [tied] because usually we only have input in one very narrow component in the value chain of the life of the infrastructure or system we're planning, designing, or constructing while the significant portions of control are often in the hands of those who are driven by other factors, mostly financial.

"The only hope against unscrupulous neoliberalist agenda is encapsulated in the collective upholding of ethics in several of complementary disciplines including policymakers, politicians, lawyers, financial professionals and most importantly in the respecting of communities and end-users," said the African Climate Reality Leader.

Article written by Uyapo Majahana (@uyapomajax)

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash