Saturday, 8 November 2014

Is e-waste a sleeping monster? Why should South Africans be wary of electronic waste?

Electronic waste or e-waste is the largest growing waste stream in South Africa. With increasing dependency on electronic appliances, the waste from electronics or electrical equipments also increases. Sreerupa Sanyal investigates into the current situation of this increasing, potentially harmful waste stream in South Africa.

Imagine a cluster of small huts with women cooking in open fires and infants rocking in makeshift cradles.

Further imagine, these huts surrounded by vast, barren tracts of lands, the size of three football fields. Thousands of tons of scrap fill the barren land and some hundred people are working amongst these heaps of trash.

Scrap collectors at the Hatherly landfill in Pretoria
Fires are burning here and there and toxic black smoke rises thick and fast in the sky.  A heavy stench of rotting vegetables, burnt tyres and circuit boards hang in the air. The churn of heavy truck tyres and scarp crushers crushing the discarded waste fill the atmosphere.

This is a reality that can be observed in the Hatherly landfill near Pretoria East.

Five years ago, there were no settlements near the landfill. Most of the scrap consisted of rotten vegetables, plastic, glass and paper, which were mostly dumped in the soil.

Hatherly landfill from above a dump site in Hatherly
These days circuit boards, refrigerators, computer screens, printer cartridges, broken cellular phones and all sorts of small and large electrical appliances far outnumber rotten vegetables, plastics and glass.

Electronic waste or e-waste is the new form of waste stream that is rapidly growing in South Africa’s major landfills. With no legislation in place and extremely low level of awareness, e-waste is mostly handled by informal recyclers such as those in Hatherly. This increases the potential risk to their health and surroundings. [Read more in]

A flowchart below represents the current e-waste management system in South Africa:

According to an estimate by Dr. Koebu Khalema of the Africa Institute, ( South Africa recycles less than 25 per cent of the 5 million tons of e-waste it generates every year. The National Waste Management Act brought into force in 2008 makes no specific mention of electronic waste. There are no legislations in place regulating the activities of e-waste recyclers. Also there are no inventory of how much e-waste is generated within the territorial borders of the country or how much of it is recycled.

This increase in e-waste and the absence of data should be seen in the backdrop of the fact that, in March 2014, according to a Business Tech report, more smart phones were sold in the country than newspaper. About 40 million South Africans have access to the internet and new vehicle sales are growing at an annual rate of almost 12 per cent each year. Consumer electronics in South African homes amount to anything between one to three million tones, most of which is likely to enter the waste stream in the next 5-10 years. [Read more in]

Currently all e-waste is bracketed under the term ‘hazardous waste’.

Most e-waste recyclers argue that categorizing e-waste as ‘hazardous’ is misleading and creates fear in the minds of people when they hear about e-waste recycling.

Metals to be extracted from circuit boards
According to Ulze van Dyk, Director Africa E-Waste: “A computer monitor sitting in one corner of a room is not hazardous. Electronic goods become hazardous only when it is broken down and crushed without the proper technical know-how.”

South African recyclers specializing in electronic waste send most of their waste to European countries to extract the precious metals found in discarded circuit boards and central processing units because local companies either do not have the technical know-how or the technology available is at an infant stage. [Read more in]

Almost all formal e-waste recyclers and information technology practitioners feel awareness about electronic waste, their generation and management is the need of the hour. One of the major reasons why e-waste is not regarded as a ‘priority waste’ is because of the lack of knowledge about e-waste.

Prof. Marlene Holmner, specializing in electronic waste and a professor of information technology from the University of Pretoria says: “South Africa is neglecting the issue of e-waste at its own peril. If nothing is done now, e-waste will prove to be the major environment and health hazard of the future.” 

Friday, 7 November 2014

The science behind recycling: Turning scrap into gold: Part 2

The recycling compound at DESCO
DESCO, one of the largest e-waste recycling company of South Africa boasts of a huge facility where hundreds of workers are engaged in recycling electronic waste. Behind their office premises, a vast cemented compound, the size of two football fields, stand, surrounded by a tall electronic fence and a huge iron gate.

Thousands and thousands of white bags are lined up on one side of the compound filled with discarded circuit boards from various electronic equipments like personal computers, laptops, workstations, refrigerators etc. Another side of the compound is filled with hundreds of ATM machines that have stopped working and have arrived at the facility to be recycled or repaired.

There are approximately 120 people wearing different colored coded safety vests working on the various segments of the compound.

Bags of circuit boards to be exported
Says John van Coller, the corporate sales executive of the company, pointing to the white bags: "All these bags are packed with circuit boards of high grade value. They are to be exported to Brussels. The companies there shall extract the gold, copper and aluminum from these boards and then send them to various electronic equipment manufacturers."

Each week DESCO ships about 20 tons of circuit boards to different countries abroad such as Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark etc. Most European countries according to van Coller have s
ophisticated mechanism to extract precious metals from the boards. Unfortunately, no recycler in South Africa matches the technology available in these countries to extract the metals.

Bags of SASSA cards from the Eastern Cape Government
There are two main types of extraction process. The first is shredding, where manual labour is involved in extracting the metals like gold, copper, aluminum, platinum etc. It is cost effective and the main form of metal extraction process used by recyclers in South Africa. The other is calcining or pelting where machines are used to extract the metals.

However, both the processes are at an infant stage in the country. Due to lack of awareness and general disregard to e-waste recycling, various e-waste recyclers adopted these methods of extraction rather late as compared to some African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria. It was only in 2011-2012 that DESCO along with E-WASA, Department of Environmental Affairs and other e-waste recyclers organized intensive training camps in the country to train recyclers in the different metal extraction processes.

The machine for calcining/pelting of circuit boards
According to Malcolm Whitehouse, manager of the computer refurbishing centre, exporting circuit boards to foreign countries is an expensive method. The companies abroad buy the circuit boards from South African recyclers by weight. Each bag costs about R 200. About 25-30 bags of circuit boards get exported each week. The shipping and transportation costs are all borne by the European companies that buy the goods. However, after extraction the cost at which these companies sell the extracted metals is almost five times, of what they initially invest.

recently entered into an agreement with the Eastern Cape provincial government to recycle discarded SASSA cards and other government identity cards.

According to van Coller: "These cards should be considered electronic waste because of the magnetic strip and the electronic chip that is embedded in the cards. However, mostly these are recycled by plastic recyclers and the strip and chip are both thrown away by them which end up in the landfills."

DESCO plans to enter into similar agreements next year with all the eight provincial governments to recycle SASSA cards and similar government identity cards.
DESCO working 'shredding' from circuit boards

Investing in e-waste recycling can yield rich returns. According to Whitehouse, the gold yielded by one kilogram of circuit boards can equal the gold extracted from one ton of earth. However, it takes almost 2000 circuit boards to make up the one kilogram.

Explains van Coller: ‘If this awareness is generated; of how valuable e-waste is to the nation’s economy then the need to recycle them will become a priority.’

The science behind recycling: Refurbishing Computers: Part 1

DESCO's office at Kempton Part
In Kempton Park, Johannesburg, amidst vast tracts of unattended land, stands the largest e-waste recycler of South Africa, DESCO.

A first time visitor here can easily confuse the place with that of a secret laboratory where scientific experiments are carried out. Anyone without a prior appointment is not allowed inside the huge iron gates. A camera at the gate takes a photograph of the vehicle you are riding in and then a machine scans your fingerprints.

Once inside the compound, the visitors are told to declare any electronic items that they might be carrying like smart phones, tablets, personal computers, cameras etc. Thereafter they go through a machine which detects if the visitor has any undeclared electronic items in their possession and finally they are allowed inside a huge steel gate.

Once inside, they are given safety glasses, earplugs and orange colored safety vests.

Says John van Coller, the corporate sales executive of the company: "one of the main purposes of our company is to educate and inform people about e –waste recycling."

Beginning its journey in 1992, the company has gone on to become the largest e-waste recycler not only in South Africa, but in the entire African continent.

Mother Boards are segmented in three divisions
Says Coller: “We have clients ranging from provincial governments to SANDF to corporate houses such as HP, Dell, IBM  and even universities such as Wits, UJ, UP etc.”

The first stop is the computer-refurbishing centre. Here all types of computers and accessories, those which have reached end of their normal life cycles are repaired and refurbished. Refurbishing differs from recycling as the device does not need to be broken down into parts. The part or accessory which seem to have stopped working are fixed and the computer is then donated to schools around Johannesburg.

A computer has the capacity to be repaired at least thrice before it finally gives away and a refurbished computer can work for as long as 6 years before breaking down. Giving away refurbished computers to schools and technical colleges also form part of DESCO’s ‘community outreach programme.’ Representatives from the company regularly go to schools around Gauteng to enlighten students and teachers about e-waste and the need to recycle them.

Below is a video of the refurbishing computer centre of DESCO.

The centre boasts of having a cutting edge software which can delete all and any information that is stored on the hardrive of the computer. According to Malcolm Whitehouse, manager of the refurbishing unit, DESCO receives a lot of computer equipments from SANDF and other corporate houses. Often there is sensitive information stored on the machines. DESCO does not release any computers without first rewriting the entire hardrive.

For computer units which cannot be repaired any longer, the mother board, the screen and the central processing unit (CPU) are taken apart for recycling. The rest of the computer consisting of plastic, glass or other material goes to recyclers who specialize in recycling those items.

The mother boards and processors are also segmented into three different categories: the low, medium and high. The highest grade is the most valued one as there is a large amount of gold, copper, aluminum that can be extracted from them. Most high grade mother boards are sent to foreign countries such as Switzerland, Finland and Norway. These countries have the mechanism and the know-how to extract optimum amount of metals from the equipments.

Circuit boards waiting for metal extraction
Only a third of the monitors and CPUs which come to DESCO are recycled by the company themselves. This is because the technology at DESCO is not sufficient to extract metals from a large number of processors and circuit boards. 

Computer refurbishing is a major recycling component of the Company. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

E waste: An ethical concern for information age?

Piles of e-waste at DESCO
Many academics, especially in developing economies, are pondering on the question of whether electronic waste and its proper management should be placed as an ethical concern.

Most developing countries lag in the management of electronic waste. Despite major international treaties such as the Basel Convention (read more in Key Term of Reference) electronic waste is still exported to many such countries as India, China, Nigeria, Ghana and the DRC. In fact the world's largest electronic waste dump site is situated in Accra, Ghana.

Prof. Marlene Holmner of the University of Pretoria says that as there is no awareness among consumers of electronic goods, electronic waste is therefore is not considered a ‘priority waste’ in South Africa and hence its recycling and management is hardly given any importance.

John van Coller, from DESCO, one of the largest electronic recyclers in Gauteng, echoes the same sentiment.

"Currently the percentage of e-waste that is being generated in South Africa is wholly unknown."
DESCO receives almost 1000 tons of e-waste per month chief among which are computer monitors, mother boards, Internal Processing Units (IPUs) and even ATM machines.

Says van Coller: "The amount of e-waste we receive and recycle is like a drop in the ocean."

Back in 2008, when legislation for waste management was brought into force in the country, there had been an idea of making an inventory of e-waste that is generated within the borders of South Africa. According to van Coller: "We were really excited by the idea of an e-waste inventory. Unfortunately the Dept of Environmental Affairs never gave the go-ahead and it was never done."

Queries from the Department have remained unanswered.

According to Prof. Eric Achankeng from the University of Adelaide, South Africa suffers from a situation where there is a major vacuum related to e-waste management. Writing in an academic paper, Globalization, Urbanization and Municipal Solid Waste Management in Africa, he writes, "… there is no extant mechanism in the country with regard to proper management and disposal of electronic waste."

Agbogbolshie dump site: the largest e-waste dump site in the world.
E-waste management is rapidly becoming an ethical concern among many information technology practitioners. According to Prof. Achankeng: "E-waste management and recycling should not only be treated as an environmental concern but also as an ethical concern. When consumers buy electronic goods, it must be their moral, social and ethical obligation to inquire into what happens to the goods when it reaches the end of its life cycle."

Holmner and van Coller feel that in the particular situation of South Africa, the awareness about e-waste is so insignificant that far from seeing it as an ethical problem, both consumers and corporate have to first view it as a problem.

The majority of e-waste management is currently in the hands of informal recyclers. According to Prof. Holmner, informal recyclers often do not have the education nor the skill to properly dispose off electronic waste especially waste containing radio-active and other harmful metals. These often end up in the various landfills around the country thus posing a major health hazard to people living in the surrounding areas.

Piles of scrap in Hatherly landfill, Pretoria
In an academic paper written in 2010, Jinglei Yu and Yang Yan from Nankai University writes that since 2000, Asia Pacific and Middle/East Africa saw the fastest growth of PC sales while the developed regions of North America and Western Europe lagged behind. According to the paper, by 2030, the number of obsolete PCs in developing regions will double that of developed regions with 400-700 million units in developing countries compared to 200-300 million in developed regions.

Numbers like the above, according to Prof. Holmner are indeed a cause for concern.

“There is a dire need of legislation in the country with regards to e-waste, but even more importantly there is a dire need to educate people to the effects of electronic waste. Awareness about e-waste among consumers and companies should be our first priority.”

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Informal Recyclers: The lure of electronics: Part 2

Simon Baloyi, Manager, Hatherly Landfill
The road leading to the Hatherly landfill is littered with plastic, garden residues, broken glasses and other scrap materials, some which have been trampled by passing trucks. Mounds and mounds of dirt and dust add to the atmosphere.

Seven old dishwashers stand in one corner, the end of their life cycles clearly visible  with corroded metals jutting from their ends. Large leather suitcases also line up on the side of the road and freshly trampled pieces of tube lights welcome visitors to the largest landfill of Pretoria.

Scrap in Hatherly landfill, Pretoria
Simon Baloyi, 54, manager of the Hatherly landfill says: “Theft of electronic goods are very common here. All kind of trash is supposed to end up here, instead some people, stop
the trucks while entering and steal the scrap, mostly electronic equipments."

Unregistered informal recyclers who indulge in these thefts mostly target electronic goods. Refrigerators, electronic weighing scales, alarm clocks and printer cartridges are the most sought after goods. Weighing scales seem to be the favorite as they are deemed instant cash. E-waste or e-trash has increased at a rapid pace in the past five years but their recycling rates have not.

Alex Wasangarai, an informal recycler and the deputy manager at the landfill, specializes in e-waste recycling. According to him, the recyclers often overlook electronics. In fact the largest recycler to buy scrap from Hatherly, ‘Remade’ does not deal with electronic scrap. The municipality, which is responsible for teaching these recyclers on ways to handle trash, started teaching methods to handle e-trash only since 2011.

Baloyi complains that the methods to handle e-waste that they were taught in the earlier phase remain the same without any change. However, electronic equipments have undergone sea change.
Piles of electronic trash
He has two teams that look into cases of illegal fires and robbery of electronic trash. According to Baloyi, illegal fires and theft are the two biggest problems being faced by the Hatherly landfill. 

Regarding theft Wasangarai observes: “Theft has been on an increase over the past three years. Most unregistered recyclers are not even recyclers in the first place. They are often unemployed young men from Lusaka (a nearby township that border the landfill). The electronics that they scavenge here are sold in small shops in the town.”

The surveillance teams are made up of senior
recyclers like Wasangarai who have been working on the landfill for some years. The teams take turn each morning to come, inspect cases of illegal fires, if any, and keep an eye out for unregistered recyclers who often stop by the landfill to make a quick buck.

Site of an illegal fire being burnt
Regarding illegal fires, Baloyi explains: “All landfills have a high amount of methane in the soil. This methane has been built over years and years of land filling. There are designated spots where methane content is low so when fires take place the embers do not reach the methane level in the soil. Illegal fires that are left burning at undesignated areas have the ability to spread to places where the methane content is high. These fires can blow up the entire landfill if they are not put out in time.”

E-trash or e-waste has become a potential problem for recyclers at Hatherly. While large companies specializing in e-waste like DESCO or Africa E-waste buy most e-waste from informal recyclers, there is also a large grey market for the goods. Also electronics that end up in Hatherly is often separated into plastic, glass, metals like copper, platinum and sometimes even gold by the informal recyclers working on the landfill.

Most formal recyclers like to buy whole appliances from the informal recyclers; however, recyclers like Wasangarai feel that more money can be made if the electronic appliance is broken down into parts and then sold. This gulf between the informal and formal recyclers often creates a gap and the electronic appliance is made redundant.

Ulze Van Dyk, Director of Africa E-waste says that often when informal recyclers bring appliances, there is nothing left but the outer shell of the appliance which is hardly of any value to the recycler. It is then re-sent to other landfills.

Baloyi feels that the municipality should take up some responsibility towards electronic trash that has been growing in recent years. Instead, the municipality often urges recyclers at Hatherly to take home electronics goods if found in good condition.

The pipe through which methane gas can come out in case of fire
Wasangarai recalls that two years ago, Hatherly received 12 plasma television, all in brand new condition. They had absolutely no idea how to deal with the package and ended up taking them home. Baloyi and Wasagarai both still have them at their house and working in perfect condition.

E-waste in South Africa currently is not considered a ‘priority waste’ and hence their primary collection for recycling is left to the informal recyclers working in landfills. As the amount of electronic trash grows in landfills every day, cases of illegal fires and theft of electronics also increase.

Informal Recyclers: The backbone of e-waste management in South Africa: Part 1

Nofoto Sikewega, an informal recycler
Nofoto Sikewega’s morning starts at 5:30 a.m. amidst vast tracts of barren land. Sikewega, 31, clad in heavy boots, overalls, and a hat goes in search of illegal fires that might have been left burning the night before.

She is one of the 2,000 informal recyclers carving out a living at Pretoria’s largest landfill in Hatherly, a short distance from Mamelodi. Amidst all the humdrum going around, she concentrates on rescuing an electronic alarm clock from an illegal fire that had been left burning.

Covering an area of 72 hectares, the size of four football fields, Hatherly is the largest landfill in operation in Pretoria. Simon Baloyi, the manager of the landfill looks out over the vast wasteland and says: "It is beautiful, isn't?"

The ‘beautiful’ landscape consists of vast tracts of dry dust and mud and thousands of tons of every kind of scrap, one can think of. Scores of men and women clad in garments like Sikewega sort the rubbish into piles and bundles. The commodities that we tend to throw away in our bins so carelessly, end up here and is carefully sorted into heaps, bundles and piles before being carted off to the recyclers. Those, which cannot make it to the formal recyclers, are buried in the landfill.

Hatherly was declared a landfill under the Tshwane Municipality in 1993. It also has an archaeological importance. The burial grounds of the Ndebele tribe, who lived here years ago are situated just near its now encroaching borders.

Baloyi himself started out as an informal recycler before becoming the manager of the landfill.

Scrap packed in bags for recyclers
“When the landfill began, we had hardly 200 employees,” says Baloyi. "Now the number of registered informal recyclers working at the landfill is 2,000. Add to this the number of unregistered recyclers, who work here illegally and most of the time steal commodities from the landfill to sell into the second hand good shops in town. These people make the most illegal fires."

The term ‘illegal fires’ refer to the burning of waste, most often electronic waste illegally. There are designated burning spots located within the landfill and a strict scheduling of when scrap is to be burnt. Waste cannot be burnt in undesignated spots and at unscheduled times.
Scrap piled in bags for recyclers

Burning waste seem to be final option taken by the recyclers. The first choice is to separate the scrap that can be recycled. Almost 90 per cent of the plastics and glass are recycled from the landfill. However when it comes to electronic goods a fairly small  amount makes to the formal recyclers.

Sikewega seem adept at spotting the hazardous waste from the non-hazardous ones. She has at her fingertips a long list of what are considered hazardous e-waste under the Waste Management Act 2008. Her knowledge about this waste stream seems to surpass the knowledge of many academics who are working on waste management.

Says Sikewega: "E-waste can be any electronic scrap. But it is important to realize that electronics do not just comprise of electronics but rather plastic, glass, copper and all sorts of metals. Electronics is the most difficult trash to sort out because we have to separate all the elements."

Waste has become an integral part of these informal recycler’s lives.

A fire that was made illegally
It is 17:30 in the evening... Sikewega’s and Baloyi’s day starts to wind down. As she heads off to the communal washroom to take the grime and the dust off her face, Baloyi says: "
Most people just throw their trash off and do not care what happens to it. We take care of it here. If we weren't here, what do you think would have happened to all the trash?"

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why the concern for electronic waste?

Environmental activist Jim Puckett once wrote:

"Wherever we live, we must realize that when we sweep things out of our lives and throw them away, they do not disappear, as we might like to believe. We must know that 'away' is in fact a place likely to be somewhere where people are impoverished, powerless and too desperate to be able to resist the poison for the realities of poverty. 'Away' is likely to be a place where people and environment will suffer from our carelessness, our ignorance and our indifference."

As our lives become more and more dependent on electrical appliances, the waste generated from them also increases. In fact if one thinks far back, do we know or remember where our first generation mobile phones ended up?

Agbogbolshie dump site, Accra, Ghana
In our race to become electronically savvy, we have forgotten that our discarded electronic or electrical appliances end up somewhere... this somewhere is mostly large landfills or dump sites in developing or underdeveloped economies, where the proper technical know-how to recycle these waste barely exists.

South Africa too suffers from such a situation. The country generates about 40 million tonnes of electronic waste each year. About 60 per cent of heavy metals found in landfills comes from electronic waste and e-waste has become the largest waste stream in the country since the beginning of the new millennium.

Electronic scrap at Hatherly landfill in
Pretoria East
Among international treaties and conventions dealing with waste management and recycling, South Africa boasts of being a signatory to all three international UN conventions; the Basel, the Rotterdam and the Stockholm. In spite or despite of being a signatory to all UN international treaties and conventions dealing with waste management, its own management of electronic waste is rather shrouded in mystery.

There is hardly any accurate data on how much electronic waste is generated or how much of it is being recycled. Also the country suffers from a lack of legislation dealing specifically with electronic waste.

This blog is thus an attempt to find out what the current situation of electronic waste is in South Africa and where we are headed in the future.