E-Waste: the dangers

2013-03-01 00:00

Keith Anderson from eWasa says e-waste is the fastest-growing problem in the world. Trish Beaver looks at what this organisation is doing about it

KEITH Anderson worked for one of South Africa’s largest IT distributors for 17 years. “I saw the enormous growth in the industry and also saw that computers were constantly getting replaced as the newer models were becoming popular. I wondered where they were going to?”

“I decided to do some research and travelled abroad to Switzerland, where they have a very advanced system of e-waste recycling. Everyone there knows about it and they know when they buy a new computer, they must return their old one for recycling. They have a different consciousness about the environment.”

E-waste is anything that uses an electrical current or batteries to work. The average person generates between 17 to 25 kilograms of it every year, making it the fastest-growing problem in the world, according to Anderson.

Swiss recycling guru Dr Pelo Borneo was consulted and he gave Anderson, who is based in Umhlanga, some suggestions on how to tackle the problem in South Africa. In 2008, the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWasa) was formed as an advocacy body, which would also help the SA Government develop guidelines to deal with the issue.

“Every day we use electronic goods to make our lives easier — such as hairdryers, dishwashers, cellphones, fans and computers. Around the world, tens of thousands of electronic gadgets are also being thrown away because they have become obsolete, they have broken or because the manufacturers no longer make parts,” said Anderson.

“These items are not biodegradable and they cause a huge problem for landfill operators, who have to remove them to a separate facility. Many of the components of these items are highly toxic to humans and the environment.”

In 2009, it was estimated that the world had generated 53 million tons of e-waste and only 13% was recycled. Electronic and electrical waste contains both valuable and potentially hazardous material that can be recovered through proper recycling. E-waste has toxic materials like lead, mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals, which can leach into the soil and water table, causing severe damage to the environment.

Since the formation of eWasa, the non-profit organisation has been working with manufacturers, vendors and distributors of electronic and electrical goods, and e-waste handlers (including refurbishers, dismantlers and recyclers) to manage e-waste effectively.

He said they had looked at ways to encourage people to take their old electronic equipment to drop-off sites, from where the waste would be taken to accredited people for processing. Many stores offer this facility and some are currently offering a deal where you can receive a buy-back discount for bringing in your old equipment.

However, Anderson said a problem with existing drop-off points at many of the stores is that a lot of junk is being thrown into the bins that are not appropriate, because people do not understand what e-waste is.

Anderson said that many people in SA make their living by scavenging at landfill sites, where e-waste may have been dumped. They walk around picking up dangerous materials for recycling, and, in the process, are exposed to poisons and toxins. Many of them breathe in noxious fumes after burning rubber to get to the copper inside.

“I believe that we should organise these people in their own small businesses and get them to recycle the e-waste according to the proper regulations. It would be a lot safer and they would be empowered.”

Certain objects like printer cartridges are extremely volatile under the wrong conditions. If they are heated, they can be explosive. They need to be disposed of in a particular manner. Anderson said that foreign computer companies are now paying recycling companies to dispose of these items.

He says that changing mind-sets is important. “We would love to tell people to stop buying new electronic equipment and to extend the life of their old equipment, but, unfortunately, the reality of capitalism is that people are driven by creating demand for new innovative products and the consumers follow the marketing hype.

“The reality is that most of us never use our equipment to its fullest potential. Most people never use a computer to its maximum capacity. They use maybe 10% of its functionality, but they get bored and want something new. If they want a piece of new equipment, then we would encourage the consumer to try to donate a piece of fully functional equipment to someone who can use it, such as a school, NGO or charity.”

While new technologies may lure customers with promises of performance and novelty, Anderson says they should do their homework first before buying any new technology to see if the product is environmentally sound.

For example, the new LED television screens that are offering high-definition viewing use rare earth minerals (iridiums), which are expected to be exhausted in five years. He suggested, wryly, that perhaps we should hang on to our old television sets.

Manufacturers of electronics are trying to do their bit too, by making their items more ecofriendly and by minimising the toxic materials used in the manufacturing process.

While there are toxic materials in e-waste, there are also valuable materials like gold, aluminium, rubber and chrome, and it may be worth recovering these metals for reuse.

Another initiative Anderson would like to see set up is a register for all electronic goods, so that the life of a computer or microwave is traceable. If a person sells it to someone else, it can be traced. If the equipment is recycled, then that serial number is eliminated. This is important when foreign manufacturers try to dump obsolete products in Third World countries, where there are no spares available to service them.

Anderson also in favour of a tax, such as those levied in First World countries, where consumers are charged a levy on new electronics, which pays for the recycling of e-waste. Anderson says that the more people who buy into the system, the more the tax goes down. “Fifteen years ago the green tax in Europe was five euros, but now that everyone is complying with the scheme, it is only 35 cents.”

• To find out where your nearest e-waste recycling depot is, visit www.ewasa.co.za or phone 031 575 8100.

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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