Zero Emissions Research Initiative: the art of clean manufacturing

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By Brigitte Weidlich

Modern society produces mountains of waste that must be disposed of, often at high cost. The good news is that in future, manufacturing plants could operate without producing any waste or harmful emissions at all. Namibia is already stepping into this future. The Tunweni Brewery near Tsumeb is the first manufacturing plant in Africa to implement the principle of zero waste and zero emissions. Spent grain from brewing traditional beer is used as feed at a piggery and to create a substrate on which mushrooms can be grown for sale to restaurants and hotels.

The brewery produces a traditional beer from sorghum with an alcohol content of 4% under the Omalovu brand name. It also manufactures, under the Mageu brand name, a highly nutritious non-alcoholic beverage made from maize meal, sugar and water.

Organic waste from the brewery such as spent grains have a minimal polluting effect. In fact, spent grains are rich in fibres and protein and are an excellent substitute for flour in bread. When used grains are mixed with other fibres such as wild grass, they form a valuable ingredient in the substrate soil for the growing of mushrooms. This second step in the process enables ZERI to generate additional value in the form of mushrooms and bread.

Moving from mushrooms to meat, the next step in the process involves the piggery. “The advantage of growing mushrooms on the spent grains is that the mushrooms break the grain down in the process, making it more digestible to livestock, thus enabling the animals to obtain increased protein from the grain. This enhances their growth and the quality of their meat,” Masche explains.

The waste from the piggery at Tunweni is then flushed into a digester tank with the waste-water from the brewery. The digester generates biogas and a nutrient solution. The biogas is stored in gas tanks and can be used as gas for cooking and heating. The nutrient solution flows into shallow basins where algae, through photosynthesis, digest it. These algae grow and multiply on the nutrients and flow into a fishpond and become food for fish.

Although the ZERI project was implemented successfully at Tunweni brewery for seven years, only the mushroom cultivation is being continued. Since the end of last year the production of the two traditional beers has been reduced to the minimum.

“The ZERI way changes the concept of waste as something that has to be got rid of into that of a valuable resource to create jobs, income and a better environment,” says Professor Keto Mshigeni of the University of Namibia (UNAM), which oversees the scientific and research of ZERI programmes in Namibia.

In 1998, the late Namibian business tycoon Werner List of the Ohlthaver & List Group and his wife Hilde received the ZERI (Zero Emission Research Initiatives) Award for their commitment to environmentally friendly production principles and for the success of the ZERI project at the Group’s subsidiary, Tunweni Brewery. Implementing partners are UNAM, the ZERI Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In 1994 Belgian national Gunter Pauli founded ZERI. He had previously managed a Belgian company that produced environmentally friendly cleaning products. In this capacity, Pauli oversaw the creation of a factory where all processes ran on wind and solar energy. A grass roof provided insulation to keep the plant warm in winter and cool in summer. The operations produced almost no emissions and the new concept was heralded as a major breakthrough in manufacturing processes in the early 90s. Pauli wanted to make this manufacturing formula a worldwide trend. He left the company and founded the Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI) at the United Nations University in 1994.

Today the ZERI Foundation is a non-profit organisation, established under Swiss law, with a multinational network of academics, business people, corporate managers and educators finding solutions to the needs of Earth’s inhabitants in terms of water, food, housing, health care, saving energy, creating jobs and saving ecosystems. The ZERI teams, drawn from many walks of life and expertise, in co-operation with scientists, design innovative solutions to meet environmental demands.

ZERI’s aim is to discover methods of manufacturing which produce no gaseous, liquid or solid emissions. For Pauli, zero emissions not only make environmental sense, but also economic sense. He views zero emissions as the latest in a direct line of management tools: “The cost savings from completely eliminating waste is the next great step forward in operational efficiency,” Pauli said last November at ZERI’s tenth anniversary congress.

The ZERI-BAG (Brewing-Aquaculture-Agriculture) project, initiated in 1997 at the Tunweni Brewery at Tsumeb in northern Namibia, is an example of ZERI at work.  “It is the first ZERI project in Africa and the first sorghum brewery project in the world,” says Bernd Masche of the Ohlthaver & List Group, who had the Tunweni project under his wing.

“The ZERI project at Tunweni was jointly funded by the United Nations University (UNU) and Namibia Breweries. Implementation, including the construction of the infrastructure, was managed and co-ordinated by UNAM in conjunction with experts provided in the early phase by UNU,” said Masche.

As an extension of the project, unemployed women from the community at Henties Bay were trained to make substrates for mushroom cultivation. They earn an income from their production and have plans to enlarge it. Mshigeni adds, “We have made quite a few strides with the ZERI concept, but there is room to expand the initiative.”

The ZERI concept was recently introduced in other countries in the Southern African region, with eight countries participating in the current pilot phase. UNAM is home to the regional ZERI office.

Last year UNDP and UNAM held a donor conference in Windhoek to plead for some US$30 million required to introduce more ZERI projects in up to twelve African countries and to expand on existing projects.

“We’ve had pledges from donors and are currently busy with draft budgets and project plans,” says Mshigeni.

As the founder of ZERI, Gunter Pauli stated, “This is the next great step in operational efficiency, a step with its African roots in Namibia.”

This article appeared in the 2005/6 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.



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