The ticker on the website www.theworldcounts.com keeps a live tally of global levels of e-waste. In late August 2018, the count passed 26 million tons (Mt) for the year to date. That’s consistent with recent years, during which more than 40 Mt of discarded computers, mobile phones and devices, house-hold appliances, televisions and electronic office equipment was generated annually. That equates to about 800 laptops every second.
E-waste is a growing problem around the world. According to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report, a global total of 44.7 Mt of e-waste was generated in 2016, at an average of 6.1 kg per person – significantly up on the 5.8 kg average generated in 2014. ‘The amount of e-waste is expected to increase to 52.2 Mt, or 6.8 kg per inhabitant by 2021,’ the report notes.
According to the UN report, Asia generated by far the largest amount of e-waste (18.2 Mt), followed by Europe (12.3 Mt), the Americas (11.3 Mt), Africa (2.2 Mt) and Oceania (0.7 Mt). ‘Africa generates only 1.9 kg per inhabitant,’ the report notes, adding that ‘little information is available on its collection rate.’ SA alone generated 321 kt of e-waste in 2016, at a rate of 5.7 kg per inhabitant per year. Other reports put that latter number as high as 6.2 kg.
‘Those figures might even be understated,’ says Keith Anderson, chairman of the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA). ‘South Africa has a rapidly growing middle class of people who now have electricity, and access to a lot more things that they previously didn’t have. Things like tumble dryers, hair dryers, washing machines and DStv decoders all have a finite lifespan, and all have the potential of becoming e-waste.’
eWASA was established in 2008 as an NPO that aims to establish a sustainable environmentally sound e-waste management system for SA. The problem, as far as Anderson sees it, is not necessarily that so much e-waste is being produced; the problem is more around what ultimately happens to that e-waste. As the UN report notes, ‘currently, little information is available on the amount of e-waste documented that is collected and recycled by the formal sector in Africa. Only a handful of countries on the continent have enacted e-waste-specific policies and legislation. Recycling activities are dominated by ill-equipped informal sectors, with related inefficient resource recovery and environmental pollution’.
In SA, official statistics cited by the CSIR confirm that just 11% of the e-waste generated in the country is being recycled. ‘That’s what’s being treated correctly,’ says Anderson. ‘The majority of the balance is unfortunately going to landfill, while some of the valuable items are being exported.’
A study conducted in 2017 by the CSIR, Mintek and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) found that at least 90% of the printed circuit boards and 80% of the plastic recovered from e-waste in SA are exported for reprocessing.
‘This doesn’t mean that 89% of our end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment ends up in landfills – although there certainly is leakage,’ Linda Godfrey, manager of the CSIR’s waste research, development and innovation roadmap implementation unit, explains in a media statement. Instead, she says, much of the country’s e-waste is locked up in offices, homes and storerooms. In order to unlock opportunities for the national e-waste economy, the CSIR is identifying material flows for the various e-waste elements, including metal, glass and plastic.
The DST hopes that by increasing the collection, sorting and recycling of the country’s waste, more opportunities will be created to recover resources that can feed into downstream manufacturing, in turn creating more opportunities for jobs and enterprise development.
The joint study found that only 25 jobs are currently generated per kiloton of handled e-waste. ‘If we can unlock this uncollected e-waste into the local value chain, we can create opportunities to grow South Africa’s e-waste recycling economy, as well as opportunities to increase investment in appropriate technologies and in innovative new technologies,’ says Godfrey.
‘The question we face is, how do we retain our secondary resources, such as e-waste, for as long as possible in our local value chain before they move into the global economy?’
In the US, tech giant Dell recently closed this loop when it became the first PC manufacturer to use recycled gold from e-waste in its products. ‘On average, Dell uses about 7 000 lbs [3 175 kg] of gold in its products every year,’ the company notes in a statement, adding that ‘while the amount used in any individual component is very small, the amount adds up quickly’ when one considers how many computers and other electronics it produces.
‘Because recycling rates for e-waste are still low – globally below 15% – a lot of these precious metals exit the economy,’ according to Dell. ‘In the US alone, consumers trash $60 million in gold and silver each year by not recycling their phones.’ By contrast, the company states, a ton of used motherboards has up to 800 times more gold than 1 ton of gold ore. ‘By capturing and reusing gold from obsolete electronics where possible, we are able to reduce the environmental and social footprint of our products while supporting a broader shift to the circular economy.’
While Dell is extracting value from its own e-waste, very few other companies are doing so. ‘You might ask why,’ says Anderson. ‘In South Africa, the reason is that until now the collection and treatment of e-waste is not mandated to be compulsory.’
So while the country does have the National Environmental Management Act of 1998 as well as the National Environmental Management Waste Act 59 of 2008 (both of which provide guidelines on the management of e-waste), those guidelines are voluntary and implementation is not monitored. As a result, precious little implementation is taking place.
That may soon change, however. ‘In 2017, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs put out a Section 28 notice to the paper, packaging, plastics, lighting and e-waste sectors, asking for industry waste management plans,’ says Anderson.
‘Those plans had to be submitted by early September 2018, after which the Department will make a decision and begin the process. After that it would become mandatory.
‘When we have legislation that makes it compulsory to comply, we will hopefully see a significant change to those numbers. At eWASA, we are quietly confident, and we have no reason to believe that it won’t happen.’
From a public health point of view, that legislation can’t come quickly enough. As the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report notes: ‘In countries where there is no national e-waste legislation in place, e-waste is likely treated as other or general waste. This is either landfilled or recycled, along with other metal or plastic wastes.’ The report emphasises the high risk that, in these cases, the pollutants are not taken care of properly, or ‘are taken care of by an informal sector and recycled without properly protecting the workers, while emitting the toxins contained in e-waste’.
‘The challenge is quite frustrating because a lot of the e-waste producers in South Africa are signatories to legislation in Europe or America,’ says Anderson. ‘They know what’s required but some of them say that it’s not a legal requirement in South Africa, so they’re not going to do too much. For others that’s not the case, and they are running their own internal programmes. Once it becomes formal legislation, I think we’ll see a significant change.’
Another potential change is that once legislation is in place, the e-waste industry will move from a ‘nice to have’ to an essential part of the national waste-management economy. ‘You need people and action plans to manage e-waste collection points,’ says Anderson. ‘This legislation will allow us to create 6 000 new meaningful jobs. There’s huge opportunity here, from entry-level jobs where people are collectors, right through to setting up formalised recycling points.’
It is, in many respects, an industry waiting to happen. ‘Not only that, there are also secondary industries that would flow from it,’ he says. ‘A lot of the factories that produce ICT equipment can recycle plastic at their factories, and use it to create garden benches, agricultural fencing, tombstones, manhole covers, gutters, and so on. We’re very excited about the job creation possibilities.’
Finally, there are the benefits presented by the circular economy. ‘With proper recycling facilities, all the copper, silver, aluminium and other materials – many of which have high levels of purity – can be put back into local industry for secondary raw materials,’ says Anderson. Like the Dell example, that sounds like a gold-plated solution to a growing global problem.