The country still lacks the technology and industry standards needed to cope with electronic and electrical waste (e-waste), and risks falling behind in tacking this rapidly growing waste stream.
Chairman of the e-Waste Association of SA (eWASA) Keith Anderson says SA still has a long way to go to reach the kind of established model in other economies, such as Europe's WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) Directive.
“Not one recycler in SA, not even those accredited by eWASA, meets European standards,” notes Anderson. He adds that while e-waste is not yet a major culprit when compared with other national waste streams, it is the fastest growing.
Chief communications director at the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) Albi Modise says the country doesn't have the technology to properly treat all the recyclable components in e-waste.
“In addition, the costs associated with the collection and safe dismantling and recycling of the waste often exceed the value of the recycled goods,” Modise points out.
“Industry must, therefore, take up their responsibility to ensure that when their products become waste, they implement measures to safely and sustainably manage the waste stream.”
Anderson says more needs to be done to create a clear, industry-wide recycling standard.
“In SA right now, from a recycling point of view, lots of different players – tyres, plastics, e-waste – are all lobbying government for the same thing,” explains Anderson.
“But if you form an industry body where all stakeholders are represented, you can create one strong mouthpiece to government with a national recycling standard.”
According to Anderson, a meeting was held recently to establish a recycling industry body to present all stakeholders. “This has been a positive step, provided it doesn't become just another industry body, generating more red tape in government without anything actually being done.”
He adds that the effectiveness of such an entity will depend on its members. “The proof of the pudding will be in the calibre of individual representatives associated with the body. If people are only after their own vested interests and what's best for their company instead of for the industry, it will obviously be a problem.”
Modise notes that, although there are some refurbishment and recycling centres in operation, the majority of e-waste is disposed of with general waste in a landfill. “The department, therefore, does not collect specific data on the e-waste stream,” he says.
According to the draft National Waste Management Strategy, the electrical and electronic devices making up e-waste consist of many hazardous materials, including mercury, cadmium, and lead, which pose a risk if disposed of along with ordinary municipal waste.
While the department has no specific figures on the e-waste problem, Modise notes that eWASA had done a survey to determine the amount of e-waste generated that needed disposal in the country for 2007.
The figures show the total estimated number of new PCs, including monitors, distributed locally in 2007 stood at 102 000. This is an equivalent of 27 540 tonnes, with an expected annual growth rate of 10% to 15%. Laptops, meanwhile, came in at 650 000 total units, with 20% annual growth expected.
According to Modise, the total tonnage of e-waste to be disposed of annually is approximately 135 664 for 2007.
He adds, however, that there's a high level of uncertainty in these figures, as the timeframe for electronic products to reach the waste stream is unclear, and the levels of reuse in SA are much higher than in European countries.
“These figures will become more accurate over the next few years as the Waste Information System regulations will be promulgated in the near future, which will require reporting on hazardous waste generation and the management of wastes through various technologies.”
Best laid plans
Anderson says eWASA has been lobbying companies to join on a voluntary basis for the past few years to put together a system that works for them and present it to government, rather than legislation coming in that they are then forced to comply with.
While major manufacturers have joined eWASA as members, Anderson says some vendors are still more talk than action. “Too many companies are paying lip service to recycling, but not ensuring it's done properly. Not one recycler right now can do cradle-to-cradle e-waste recycling to international standards.”
However, he adds plans are under way to get improved recycling technologies up and running. Once these are operational, and hopefully national regulations finalised as well, eWASA intends to present a draft industry waste management plan this month.
Modise says fractions of the e-waste stream are and will be identified for the submission of industry waste management plans. “These plans are to be submitted by industry to provide details on how the industry will manage their products once they become waste and how they will finance this management,” he explains.
After consulting stakeholders on various strategic issues late last year, the DEA has amended the framework for developing the National Waste Management Strategy, to help implement the objectives of the Waste Act, which came into effect in July 2009.
According to the draft strategy, the two major emerging initiatives are voluntary take-back facilities at retailers and a recycling fee on imported goods, which may result in e-waste. This levy will be managed and regulated via industry.
Anderson says such a levy could see recycling costs come down. “Make no mistake; it costs money to recycle properly. But if you have a national take-back scheme and everyone feeds into that scheme, it's been proven in countries that have adopted this that the cost of recycling comes down year-on-year, and the number of goods recycled goes up.
“The more you recycle, the more cost-efficient it becomes.”