Speaking at the launch, Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said that government alone could not address the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. She called on the private sector to support government through key public private sector partnerships that would unlock new technologies and skills, as well as kickstart the 6% economic growth needed to make an impact.
The BIDF is a first for South Africa and, although its initial focus will be on waste generated from the production of wood paper and pulp, it will also address the needs of other industries that produce biomass.
Beneficiation of biomass would not only open up revenue streams for mature industries that were struggling, but would also create new opportunities for entrepreneurs and for the development of the rural economy, she said.
CSIR chief researcher and research group leader for the BIDF, Bruce Sithole, noted that the forestry industry was a significant part of the local economy. It contributed about 2.6% to national gross domestic product (GDP), 12% to the manufacturing GDP and 35% to the agricultural GDP.
Nevertheless, he said the industry was inefficient when it came to water and energy usage and did not make full use the biomass resources at its disposal. Producers currently extracted less than 50% value from each tree.
Small amounts of waste are used to produce power and steam, but the majority ends up in landfill sites. About 500 000 t/y of sludge is produced from pulp, paper and tissue mills. This is landfilled or discharged into the ocean.
Organic matter, which makes up 60% of the sludge, could be beneficiated by separating the fibres and converting these into nanocrystalline cellulose, as well as via microbial processing to produce polymer plastics.
Describing the forestry industry as a mature one that was controlled by “bean counters” and “low on innovation”, Sithole noted that the industry was in decline leading to job losses and mill closures.