Why it is dangerous to just throw away old batteries and electronics in South Africa

South Africans should be careful when disposing of batteries and old electronics.

Since the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 2008 classified electronic waste as hazardous, consumers are required to dispose of their electronics in a way that does not harm the environment.

This includes any appliance or gadget that makes use of electricity – including fridges, stoves, kettles, irons, cellphones, batteries, computers, and TVs.

Illegal or inappropriate disposal of these items could have devastating consequences for people and the environment.

MyBroadband spoke to South African E-waste Alliance (SAEWA) co-ordinator Susanne Karcher about electronic waste disposal in South Africa.

Dangerous elements

Karcher said it is unacceptable to throw away e-waste along with other trash because of the dangerous elements electronics often contain.

“Some electronics can have up to 37 different types of elements and some of them are heavy metals,” Karcher noted.

She said putting electronic devices in a municipal waste bin is against both national law and municipal bylaws.

During the dumping of general waste at landfills, the materials can be spilt on the ground, leaching into the soil, killing plants, and poisoning water sources.

If handled incorrectly, lithium-ion batteries – which are typically found in cellphones and rechargeable gadgets – are particularly capable of causing extensive damage.

When these batteries are punctured, the lithium reacts with moisture in the air and catches fire. If they are mixed with general flammable waste at recycling facilities –  such as paper and cardboard – it can lead to massive fires.

Such a fire resulted in the complete destruction of a recycling facility in Texas in 2016.

Curb-side “recyclers”

Karcher criticised a trend among consumers to put electronic waste on the curb, assuming a well-meaning opportunist would collect and responsibly recycle it.

“If someone comes, they will cannibalise the equipment. There are certain valuable components like printed circuit boards or the copper cables those people would be after,” Karcher said.

In their efforts to get to these materials, they often cause negative environmental health and safety implications.

She explained one example was the burning of the PVC plastic sheaths which cover copper cables, that leads to the dispersion of dioxins and furans.

These byproducts are highly toxic and exposure to them can cause cancer, reproductive, and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and interference with hormones, she said.

Types of batteries

When it comes to legislation that covers the disposal of batteries, a distinction should be made between dry cell and wet cell batteries.

Dry cell batteries comprise small portable household batteries that are used in devices such as remotes, toys, flashlights, cameras, radios, and wireless computer peripherals.

These include rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries which are composed of either alkaline, carbon-zinc, lithium-ion, nickel-cadmium, or nickel-metal-hydride.

One example of a wet cell battery is the battery which is used in a car, which consists of lead-acid, a chemical compound which can be extremely harmful to the environment.

In South Africa, it has been a legal requirement to recycle lead-acid batteries since the 1940s.

Punishment for illegal disposal

In the past, South African consumers were generally allowed to dispose of their spent dry cell batteries (SDCBs) with general domestic waste.

This was due to the lack of a functional take-back system or widespread availability of recyclers that can take on the batteries.

Certain municipalities have implemented bylaws to prohibit this practice, however.

For consumers who stay in municipalities without such provisions, throwing away SDCBs with general waste is still permissible, as they may have few other options.

As of next year, this may no longer be a valid excuse.

Section 59 of the Consumer Protection Act of 2008 advocated for a compulsory take-back system for goods that have reached their end-of-life in cases where national legislation (including NEMA) prohibits their disposal or deposit.

In 2013, the National Norms and Standards for the Disposal of Waste to Landfill imposed an eight-year grace period towards the coming into effect of the prohibitions and restrictions on the disposal of batteries other than lead-acid batteries to landfills.

This period is set to end in 2021, after which manufacturers will be compelled to take back used batteries and other products and no South African will be excused from disposing of waste according to NEMA legislation.

Enforcement and the Green Scorpions

Karcher explained there is currently no dedicated policy for punishing individuals caught illegally disposing of electronic waste.

The government offers a level of oversight through the Green Scorpions, officials that work under the National Department of Environmental Affairs,  as well as provincial and municipal environmental departments.

They are mandated to investigate, inspect, enforce, and administrate cases, but Karcher said there is not much evidence of enforcement of the law and bylaws.

However, she noted there were examples where the Green Scorpions would shut down recyclers that were operating without a valid waste management license, however.

Karcher said the legitimate e-waste recycling industry is self-regulatory.

For example, SAEWA is a voluntary association of recyclers that came together and are committed to establishing certain best practices in the industry.

“We have introduced a star-graded rating system for recyclers so that you can distinguish how developed they are in terms of their value proposition and the rest of the compliance they have completed,” Karcher said.

How to recycle your electronics

Karcher shared several ways in which consumers can legally dispose of their old or broken electronics:

  • Hand over or sell to an e-waste recycler with a valid operating license but beware of fly-by-nights.
  • Place in dedicated e-waste bins for batteries and light bulbs at retailers such as Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay.
  • In areas where bylaws are relevant, consumers can drop their e-waste off at designated municipal drop-off points. Visit the eWASA home page or use mywaste.co.za to find a drop-off point.

Karcher said the best way to reduce e-waste is to cut down on new device purchases and she encouraged people to rather re-use electronics until they have no more sensible functionality before opting for a new gadget.

Now read: You can’t just throw away your old laptops and hard drives in South Africa

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Why it is dangerous to just throw away old batteries and electronics in South Africa