Linda Godfrey is a Principal Scientist at the CSIR and Extraordinary Professor at Northwest University, South Africa, and holds a PhD in Engineering. With over 20-years of sector experience, she manages the Waste Research Development and Innovation Roadmap Implementation Unit on behalf of Government. Linda Godfrey is a Member of the Scientific Committee of WRF’23 and we sat down with her to discuss the potential and challenges for a circular economy in South Africa and how the concept of sufficiency may be a disruptive driver towards wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries.
Looking at the Conference Tracks of WRF’23 (Sufficiency, Value Chains, Digitalisation), which topics and themes do you look forward to discussing during the conference?
I’m particularly interested in this topic of ‘sufficiency’, especially what it means for developing countries. We are facing a growing divide between developed and developing countries. The global north has largely invested in its infrastructure, it has high levels of consumption, much of those resources coming from global south countries. Countries which experience high levels of poverty, unemployment, hunger, energy-, water- and food-insecurity, and often in cases of resource extraction, high levels of pollution.
How do we create ‘space’ for the global south to fast-track its infrastructure development, but in a more sustainable, and less resource-intensive way? What does that development path look like? How does that align with this issue of ‘sufficiency’, so that the global south is not just the supplier of resources to wealthy countries? It forces us to think about how we use our resources, and whether we are truly using our resources in the best interest of our people.
You have been extensively researching the transition to a circular economy in South Africa. What opportunities does the circular economy offer for a country like South Africa and which challenges are standing on the way?
The circular economy as a concept has been gaining traction in South Africa over the past decade. Mostly within the context of waste management, and how we unlock socio-economic opportunities in our waste sector by moving waste away from dumpsites and landfills, up the waste hierarchy. Thereby creating opportunities for the beneficiation of waste, in particular, unlocking new high-value end-use markets for waste. As a research organization, the CSIR has an important role to play in understanding what the circular economy means for South Africa, as a developing country. And if it makes sense to adopt circular economy principles, to then evidence our transition to a more circular South African economy.
We started off by exploring some of the big drivers that we’ve seen emerge globally for the circular economy transition – Is resource scarcity a driver for us? Is climate mitigation a driver for us? Yes and Yes. The circular economy allows us to rethink our development path as a country. I do believe there are opportunities for developing countries to find a different type of development path, a more sustainable, efficient and sufficient development path.
One that meets the needs of all, but in a more sustainable and less resource intensive way. That’s the exciting part, reimagining our future to ensure improved quality of life for all. And that’s where there’s a strong role for science and technology. The challenge is in creating the right enabling environment for that to happen. To have the vision, the leadership and the courage to rethink our future. The private sector has a very important role to play in our transition to a circular economy. Government can create the right enabling environment, but the private sector will take us there. And how do we incentivize business to make this shift? It has to make sense to them. But I also believe we’ll see disruptors in this space. New types of businesses, new business models which will force sectors to rethink their approach.
Rethinking waste has a role to play within the circular economy. What are some of the biggest challenges facing the waste sector in developing countries, and how do we overcome that to ensure that products and materials are reintroduced back into economies at end of life?
The disposal of waste to land, whether to dumpsites (in most instances) or engineered landfills is the ‘go-to’ in most developing countries, because it’s the cheapest option. This may be due to a lack of waste legislation, or the weak enforcement of that legislation. It means that disposal sites can be operated as dumpsites, which have very little to no capex or opex costs. This makes disposal cheap, and any alternative waste treatment technology relatively more expensive, and hence, not attractive to waste generators.
You often find you can’t even compost organic waste competitively to waste disposal. Our starting point has to be to get the basics right – city cleansing, waste collection and safe disposal – strictly enforced on all, public and private. This drives up the cost of waste disposal, and starts to create opportunities for diverting waste away from landfill towards reuse, refurbishment/repair and recycling. But this has to be done together with ongoing awareness/communication and enforcement, to ensure that it doesn’t result in increased illegal dumping of waste to avoid increasing disposal costs.
Having said that, developing countries already have a strong culture of reuse, repair, refurbishment of end-of-life materials and products, often driven by high levels of poverty, rather than by any policy design. This has to be sustained and supported as these countries develop, for example, by providing informal repair centres with access to tools, markets, training.
The title of WRF’23 is ‘Rethinking Value – Resources for Planetary Wellbeing’. Looking holistically at the global management and use of natural resources, what do you think we need to fundamentally rethink in order to make resource use a driver for human wellbeing within planetary boundaries?
I do think that ‘sufficiency’ is at the heart of this question. What is enough? What is our relationships with resources and what we consume? How do we fast-track the development of the global south to ensure quality of life for all? It’s tricky because our current global economic model is based on one of extraction, processing and consumption of resources. Disruption is necessary if we are to remain within planetary boundaries and address some of the biggest environmental threats facing us. But there will be consequences, and we have to be sensitive to that.
Prof. Linda Godfrey is a Principal Scientist at the CSIR and Extraordinary Professor at Northwest University, South Africa, and holds a PhD in Engineering. With over 20-years of sector experience, she manages the Waste Research Development and Innovation Roadmap Implementation Unit on behalf of Government. She has provided strategic input to a number of local, regional and international waste and circular economy initiatives for the United Nations, European Union, World Bank, South African Government, Academy of Sciences, International Solid Waste Association, universities and businesses. She lectures internationally on solid waste management in developing countries, including the social, economic and environmental opportunities of “waste” within a circular economy context. She has published extensively in the field.
Interview by Emanuele Di Francesco, World Resources Forum