Your dead cellphone or broken television set is worth real money if its constituent parts are mined. They are also hazardous waste. But South Africa manages neither the potential value nor the risks of toxicity particularly well.
The use of electronic devices is on the increase — and so is waste generated by them.
South Africa is among the most guilty of e-waste pollution on the continent. Keith Anderson, the chairman of the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWasa), says that “each individual in South Africa generates about 6.2kg of e-waste” and the department of environmental affairs estimates an annual national tally of 360 000 tonnes.
Although South Africa has the National Environmental Management Waste Act 59 of 2008 and the National Environmental Management Act of 1998, both of which provide guidelines for how e-waste should be managed, not much implementation is taking place, in part because following the guidelines is voluntary and implementation is not monitored, a point made by Anderson.
“The current legislation has gaps. The minister [Edna Molewa] last year issued a section 28 notice and called on the industry to submit waste management plans from which one will be selected,” Anderson said.
But now moves are afoot to tighten regulation. The section 28 notice indicates that the manufacturer will be responsible for managing a product from the beginning to the end of its life.
“The critical sector outputs are to have less waste to landfill sites, better management and minimisation through improved collection and disposal and recycling,” said department of environmental affairs spokesperson Albi Modise.
“We are submitting our plans in co-operation with producers, retailers and distributors and consumers so that we can manage e-waste effectively to ensure that there is less contamination and people are aware of the hazards,” said Anderson.
Johnny van Coller, sales manager at Desco, a Johannesburg-based plant that specialises in e-waste, told the Mail & Guardian that one problem is that e-waste is not seen as a threat.
He added that informal recycling and uncertified e-waste recycling plants had increased over the years and made it difficult to keep track of e-waste, which often leads to health risks.
According to Van Coller, informal processing is a serious health hazard because contaminants — such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury and brominated flame retardants — that find their way into landfill sites can pollute groundwater, and therefore may cause lung and skin diseases, kidney failure and severe hormonal disorders.
He said that manufacturers needed to take more responsibility for end-of-life products, because potentially dangerous electronics are being dumped in landfills. For instance, scrapped television sets contain a white powder that is highly toxic.
Tightening up the e-waste cycle will not only cut health and environmental risks. The mining of raw materials will also be reduced; manufacturers would reuse materials extracted from old electronic products in their new products.
It would also create “green jobs” at waste disposal plants.
Desco recycles wire and PC boards, and also works with downstream vendors who strip the cables and copper to ensure reuse.
Fridges have compressors and motors that contain materials such as copper, steel and aluminium. Desco can process these and push them back into the market.
Desco collects e-waste from bins outside Hi-Fi Corporation, Makro and Incredible Connection. People can also dispose of their redundant electronics in the recycling bins in the company’s yard.
The sorting plant separates the waste and weighs it. This data is sent to Desco’s head office.
Van Coller said Desco destroys all hard drives, a Protection of Personal Information Act requirement.
“We deal with highly sensitive information and companies such as banks and government entities,” said Van Coller. “Devices such as printers have hard drives and a lot of the stuff that you have scanned and signed is still on there. Imagine if a bank dumped these devices and all that information gets leaked.”
Fridges and TVs are dumped but people tend to hoard their old cellphones because they fear someone will get hold of their personal information.
Reuse, repair, refurbish – UN
Africa has a thriving informal sector and governments need to do more to promote the reusing, repairing, redistributing and refurbishing of e-waste to recycle materials such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and iron, says a 2017 report by the United Nations University and the International Communication Union.
Not surprisingly, cellphones contribute the most to e-waste. In 2016 alone, about 432 kilotonnes of mobile phone waste was generated across the globe.
Consumers change their devices often to keep up with technological trends or for social recognition, but perhaps it is cheaper to upgrade than repair, the United Nations University report notes. — Thulebona Mhlanga
Thulebona Mhlanga is an Adamela Trust trainee financial reporter at the Mail & Guardian