Electronic devices and accessories that make the lives of billions of people easier can turn into so-called “killing machines” when they break down and are not disposed of properly.
However, few South Africans and local governments are taking concrete steps to prevent the country from being overwhelmed by piles of these ticking time bombs.
Experts say the problem is so extensive that every South African produces more than 6 kg of electronic waste annually, of which only 12% is ultimately reused or recycled.
The rest of the mobile phones, laptops, headphones, chargers, televisions, microwave ovens, washing machines, refrigerators and batteries that are not recycled end up in landfills, pollute the environment or threaten the health of people who come across them by chance.
Circular Energy estimates that around 40 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated worldwide each year. That’s like throwing away 800 laptops every second.
In total, 70% of the world’s total toxic waste consists of electronic waste.
“Electronic waste is the type of waste in the world that is growing the fastest, precisely because people have such easy access to electronics,” says Patricia Schröder, spokeswoman for Circular Energy.
This organization runs a nationwide take-back scheme to collect any and all types of electronic devices and dispose of, repair or recycle them responsibly.
Too much, too fast
Schröder says electronic waste is any device or object with an electrical current. This includes working and non-working devices.
“An object is considered waste as soon as the original user no longer has a purpose for it,” she says.
“However, there is such a long list of goods that are classified as electronic waste, because power plugs, cables and household light bulbs are also all electronic waste. This is partly why electronic waste is such a big problem in South Africa and the world.”
Schröder believes that the technology industry updates devices so often that tons of devices are left unused. The average person replaces their mobile phone every 18 months.
“Today’s appliances are often also made in such a way that they are only usable for a limited time before they give up anyway and have to be replaced,” she says.
“It is also often more expensive to send devices for repairs than to replace them. This leads to more electronic waste.”
“The impact that electronic waste has on the environment is serious and we must all start paying attention to it,” says Schröder.
“Any mobile phone, laptop or electronic device contains a dangerous component that is harmless when the device is in use, but becomes dangerous as soon as it starts to break down or leak.”
She explains that working refrigerators sometimes end up in landfills and the compressors begin to release gas.
“The gas released from refrigerators contributes up to ten times more to global warming than carbon dioxide,” she says.
The Electronic Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) says most electronic devices contain metals such as copper, nickel, beryllium, lead, solder, tin, cadmium and mercury, as well as glass and other components that can harm animals and humans. The toxins that come from this can contaminate water sources, which in turn have life-threatening consequences for humans and animals.
According to Schröder, there has also recently been an alarming trend regarding the collection of electronic waste.
“People started collecting cables and selling them to scrap dealers for the copper they contained. The problem, however, is that these individuals often burn the casings of the cables to get to the buyer so they get more money for it,” she says.
“Dangerous gases are released into the air during the burning process. It has already been proven that these gases can even cause cancer.”
Schröder says this trend is something that Circular Energy is striving to end “without depriving people of the right to earn a living”.
“In the end, we want to get those who assemble the cables to bring them to Circular Energy and then be paid the same as they would get from scrap dealers. However, they don’t have to risk their lives to get their hands on that money.”
Almost 100% recyclable
Most electronic waste is almost 100% recyclable, but Schröder says it doesn’t work like with other products where a toaster suddenly turns into toilet paper.
She says that devices that are still in good condition are often repaired to be traded in the second-hand market. In most cases where the devices have not been disposed of properly, the physical components and toxins that make up the devices are removed piece by piece for reuse. The little bit that cannot be reused is destroyed.
According to eWASA, all electronic devices contain rare natural elements such as silver, gold, palladium and other earth metals.
“These are valuable and precious resources that we should not just throw away,” says the association.
“However, it is important that it is disposed of responsibly.”
The latest legislation on electronic waste underlines the fact that this waste may only be recycled at licensed facilities, which are approved by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.
However, most of these facilities are privately owned, with few public facilities available to South Africans.
Schröder says the department, led by Minister Barbara Creecy, has taken positive steps to change this in the past few years.
“The problem is that most municipalities in the country simply do not have the money or resources to undertake such a large undertaking.”
Circular Energy is working with several municipalities to finally get private contractors to collect the waste.
“It will work like normal waste removal services, but for electronic waste.”
People can also contact this organization directly and request that the waste be collected directly from their home. In addition, there are more than 500 Woolworths branches across the country where people can dispose of their used batteries and light bulbs.
In celebration of international e-waste day, Circular Energy also set up collection points on Saturday at the Centurion shopping center in Gauteng, as well as at six other shopping centers in KwaZulu-Natal.
“It is every South African’s responsibility to look after their environment and one way to do this is to drop off all their old devices at our collection points on Saturday.”
- Visit Circular Energy’s website for more information.