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.” 

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