Author: Vivienne Roberts

The complex world of Japanese waste management

I recently got back from a two week holiday in Japan.  The first week was spent snowboarding up north and the second week was in the madness that is Tokyo.  In both, I encountered confusing, and strangely strict, recycling rules that were difficult to follow and seemed to change from region to region.

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In the house that a big group of us had rented at the snow, we were asked to separate our recycling into cans, bottles, food waste and other.  Simple enough.  Around the ski resort bins were separated into ‘combustible’ and ‘other’.  And then when we got down to Tokyo, we had four pages of instructions in the AirBnB welcome pack about what needs to be separated and how to do it.  Rubbish was collected on our street every day, but I couldn’t see any difference in the trucks driving around and they all seemed to lump rubbish bags together without any apparent distinction between bags.  Other than crates of cans and bottles that were loaded up separately.  Who knows where those crates came from.  It was incredibly confusing.

There are a lot of articles out there which go into the complicated nature of recycling in Japan in much more depth than I would be able to having been there for just one week.  I found this one interesting.

But it’s an important topic.  Because there are vending machines dotted (spray-painted) all around the streets of Tokyo.  Everything comes in plastic.  Individually wrapped goodies are ubiquitous, and when you buy a single plasticked thing, it gets placed in a plastic bag.  And having seen what I’ve seen in the Philippines, this was naturally a bit distressing.

The Rockefeller Foundation has two Japanese cities within its 100 Resilient Cities programme; Kyoto and Toyama.  I didn’t visit either, but the Toyama Resilience Strategy is probably reflective of other Japanese city priorities.  They celebrate their existing waste management practices, and point out that individuals take ownership of their role in keeping the city clean.  But from a municipal level they also discuss grander plans and highlight the importance of the development of the city’s waste to energy industry.   “With city incentives, seven different companies now turn “waste” into usable products at the EcoTown Industrial Park, started in 2002. An extensive waste recycling education center increases citizen awareness of the methods and importance of waste recycling.” [Source] . They also point out the importance of incorporating waste reduction and recycling principles into education programmes and messaging.

Layout of Toyama Eco-Town [Source: Toyama Resilience Strategy]
Layout of Toyama Eco-Town [Source: Toyama Resilience Strategy]
What they don’t seem to do is look at reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place.  It all seems to focus on waste management, recycling, combustion, landfill.  There doesn’t seem to be any emphasis on rethinking packaging of products in Japan.  Talking to manufacturers.  Rethinking the need for wrapping up Pocky chocolate sticks (yum) into two separate packets within one single box.

We felt plastic sick by the time we got home.  And considering how much work each individual is expected to do in their day to day household recycling, and the social pressure that seems to be experienced at this domestic level, it’s not clear if any of that pressure is being directed upwards.  Both at the regulators and at the suppliers.

Asia has a lot to answer for with plastic consumption.  And Japan has enough resources to find a suitable response.

The tricky nature of design and construction overlap in solar projects

Design

Solar PV facilities have ever increasing pressure on construction timelines.  In theory they are fairly simple design and construct projects, and one of the major benefits of these facilities is that they can come online in a relatively short space of time, and start generating revenue quickly.

So standard processes and procedures used within the engineering sector may be put under increasing pressure, in order to realise an early commercial operation date.

In an ideal world, the facility design is carried out upfront.  Site investigations are conducted, studies are done, calculations are calculated and all of these feed into the design process.  Design docs are developed, and bundled up into neat and ordered packages, which are handed over to the owner for review and comment.  Once everyone has had their turn to check that the design is in good order, and fully compliant with standards and specs, equipment is procured, and construction management documentation, such as work method statements, are developed.  Controlled.  Organised.  And compliant.

The reality of these projects is vastly different.  Certain things are known from contract negotiation – which modules, mounting system and inverters will be used, what is the overall facility capacity, where are the roads going to be located.  Designs will also be nicked from previous projects, to save time and cost, altered and amended based on local conditions.  Everyone will be watching the procurement of long-lead items with a keen eye along with any other activity under the project’s critical path.

So it’s likely that the design will be put together in clumps and blobs.  Loosely bundled documents, with vague references to geotechnical reports and flood studies, will come through in a piecemeal fashion.  Often before it’s been reviewed internally by the contractor.  There is enormous pressure on the Owner to carry out their reviews and issue comments with no delay, as everyone’s watching the clock.  But this way of submitting documentation is onerous on an owner’s engineer.  It’s difficult to plan and allocate resources when you’re not sure when documents are going to come through.  It can be hard to keep the same people on the job, which means more time spent by your engineers getting up to speed with the contract specs.  And it can mean multiple iterations of your log of comments.  It chaotic, pressured and not a whole lot of fun.

So some things that are important:

  • When documents come through, the contractor should highlight any specific aspects of the design which may have an impact on the overall project schedule.  For instance, tracker system design, which needs to be reviewed against local standards may be important as equipment needs to be ordered.
  • The document register becomes an incredibly important tool.  It should be tracking what the latest version of the document is, what the changes were in this revision, when it was issued and what the current status is (issued for review, approval, construction etc)
  • Document control in general becomes incredibly important.
  • The document management system should be easy to use.  If you need to go into the system to download small bundles of documents frequently, then it needs to be easy to navigate and docs need to be easy to download.  Access should be easy to secure, so that people on the design review team can search for documents themselves.
  • Transmittals should include a list of documents included, along with the location of the document on the document management system, or direct links to the documents.
  • Construction documentation, such as inspection and test plans and work method statements, should be developed in parallel, so that when the design is agreed, the ITPs and WMSs are ready, and there is no delay to construction.
  • For very time constrained reviews, it may be appropriate to focus solely on the observations of non-compliance with either local standards or the contract specs.  Design preferences may need to be dropped.  This is for the owner to decide.  They are paying for the product and it is ultimately their decision as to whether they are going for a gold standard project, or a project that finishes on time.
  • The contract should transfer all design risk to the contractor.  If the owner comes across any non-compliance at any point, the contractor should be required to fix it.  Increased pressure on the design phase should not relieve the contractor of their obligations to deliver a compliant project.
  • The contractor should be fully in control of construction quality.  So that the owner can see that the facility is being built to spec, and that accelerated works have not resulted in a poor quality product.

It’s difficult.  There are competing pressures, multiple activities taking place at the same time, and all parties may have limited resources at their disposal.

Back in the business – the Australian energy business

GDay

I am coming up for air after a crazy and intense year of maternity leave.  Thanks to all who have kept in touch and apologies to those who were expecting the newsletters to continue.

My big news is that four months ago I started working for an engineering firm in Melbourne, in their renewable energy team.  I am back in the world of consulting, working as technical advisor on a number of solar projects around Australia.  It’s very similar to the work I was doing back in South Africa so it’s familiar ground.

This market is booming at the moment, and there are a lot of little interesting topics floating around that could use a bit of discussion.  What’s of clear interest to me is the number of South Africans moving over here with experience in renewables.  The slow down of the REIPPP programme in SA has had many people looking further afield for work.  Not including myself I can think of five people who were consulting in Cape Town while I was there, who are now based in Australia.  And that’s just within consulting.  There will be a whole heap more working for the other project players.

I’m slowly getting my head around the grid connection space.  It’s complicated, with uncertainties that seem to be driving developers around the bend.  Marginal and Distributed Loss Factors deserve their own youtube channel, and the Generator Performance Standards are tying people in knots.

Each state has its own planning rules.  The country is enormous with long tentacled electrical infrastructure.  The politics is political and the leaders love to leave.

It’s a big mish mash and a bit wishy washy.  And it’s a lot to get your head around.

So watch this space.  Perhaps all that I can promise is that you learn along the way with me.

Melaka – one of Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities

In August 2016 we left Singapore by bus and landed in Johor Bahru, a city that seems to exist solely for the purpose of supplying Singapore with goods by truck.  We spent one night there before heading to Melaka (also sometimes referred to as Malacca.)  Here we found a small city rich in history, diversity, personality, beauty and with a lot of character.

Part of its history is that it was under Dutch occupation or control for a long time, and there is evidence of this throughout the city.  In the architecture and the way things are named (like the Stadthuys or city hall in the middle of town.)   I found myself wondering if this is the part of the world that so many Cape Malay people in South Africa can trace their heritage back to.  And it turns out that there were slaves sent from Melaka to Cape Town.  I found the experience that much more personal to think on it; that there was such a distant and yet very real link between this city that I had stumbled upon, and my home town.

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The 100 Resilient Cities initiative lists the following as Melaka’s resilience challenges:

  • Coastal flooding
  • Cyber attack
  • Declining or ageing population
  • Disease outbreak
  • Landslide
  • Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system
  • Poor air quality/pollution
  • Rainfall flooding
  • Rising sea level and coastal erosion

Coastal flooding/Rising sea level and coastal erosion/Rainfall flooding

These concerns are easy to understand.  The city is centred around the Melaka river, which winds its way around the city and flows out to the ocean.  It flows right through the heart of the touristy section of the city, and buildings and infrastructure are built right up to the water’s edge.

There is clearly a lot of history connected to the river.  A beautiful water wheel, ship exhibition, and tourist attractions and activities are set up around the river.  It is therefore not hard to imagine that the city is vulnerable to the effects of flood and sea level rise.

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Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system

We stayed in the city centre.  We had arrived by bus from Johor Bahru and had used a bus to get from the main bus terminal to the hotel where we were staying.  This worked well and was very cheap.  But that is as far as our experience of the public transportation system went.  For the rest of our time, we walked around the city.  We didn’t brave the brightly coloured and adorned tourist tricycles.  But it’s not hard to imagine that the transport system is stretched and stressed.

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Disease outbreak

I’m not really sure what diseases they are referring to with this, but this was one of my favourite signs in Melaka.  My guess is that they’re more worried about non-STD related diseases, but still, play safe folks.

Melaka