Electronic waste is the fastest-growing stream of waste in South Africa, according to the EPR Waste Association of South Africa (EWASA).
Despite this, only 14% of mainstream e-waste is recycled — the lowest rate of any waste stream in the country, according to the South African Institution of Civil Engineering infrastructure report card for 2022.
This means hazardous e-waste is still reaching landfills despite being banned under the National Norms and Standards for Disposal of Waste to Landfill since August 2021, said EWASA research and development manager Lene Ecroignard.
EWASA is a producer-responsibility organisation with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment that is responsible for implementing sound e-waste management systems in the country.
The latest data available in the United Nations Global E-waste Monitor shows that there are 6.9 kilograms of e-waste produced per person annually in Southern Africa.
415.5 kilotonnes of e-waste was produced in South Africa in 2019.
Electronic waste contains potentially hazardous material that can harm the environment and humans, stated EWASA.
Materials that can be harmful to human health include mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium and lithium.
A study looking at the health impacts of workers at e-waste recycling plants in India found that 75% of the workers at the recycling centres had diseases directly attributable to the unsafe recycling of e-waste.
There is also an environmental impact to improper e-waste recycling. EWASA highlighted the threat of the contamination of water systems and soil near landfills due to improper e-waste management.
Giulio Airaga from Desco Electronic Recyclers also made this point to MyBroadband in 2020, saying, “If these fractions get dumped, their chemicals leach into the ground. They affect the soil and the groundwater underneath it.
“You can’t plant on this soil, and if you drink the water that comes from the water table where e-waste was dumped, you can get poisoned.”
South Africa has regulations that set standards for the safe disposal of electronic waste.
The National Norms and Standards for Disposal of Waste to Landfill banned electric and electronic devices and batteries from landfills since 23 August 2021, said Ecroignard.
“Landfill sites are prohibited from accepting e-waste for disposal from that date forward.
“However, some e-waste is still finding its way to landfills, and we are working with Municipalities to drive awareness campaigns with households on the importance of separating e-waste at source and dropping it off at designated collection points.”
The National Environmental Waste Act of 2008 requires the appropriate disposal of hazardous waste, such as batteries that contain chemicals which pose a danger to the environment.
The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) also provides standards for businesses to dispose of e-waste responsibly. POPIA stipulates that enterprises must completely delete any personal data from storage drives to protect employees and clients.
Producers of e-waste are also financially responsible for properly disposing of their products under the new extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation.
Under the legislation, a fee is levied against producers of products, including e-waste, for the collection and proper treatment of waste. The EPR scheme came into effect on 21 May 2021.
“The Regulations have significant ramifications for all producers, brand owners, importers, distributors, and retailers in the electrical and electronic equipment, lighting, paper and packaging sectors,” said Ecroignard.
Businesses, individuals and municipalities are therefore required to dispose of e-waste responsibly.
Customers who want to deal with e-waste in their possession have the option of taking e-waste to recycling centres, or a service provider can remove waste from their home or office, according to e-waste recycling companies.
The companies may choose to assess the devices to see if they are still in proper working order.
When the decision is taken to recycle the device, it is collected, weighed, and separated into its components — known as “e-waste fractions”. Common fractions are PC boards, plastics, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, glass, and PVC cabling.
Qualified e-waste recyclers must also provide customers with a recycling certificate upon completion.
Ecroignard said there is a robust network of e-waste recyclers in the country.