19 – 20 March, 2024 – JHB, South Africa

Surmounting mountains of e-waste

By Fiona Wakelin


If ocean plastic pollution was one of the major environmental challenges we finally woke up to in 2018, the ebb and flow of public opinion could and should turn to electronic waste. The numbers are astounding; 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year and left unchecked this could more than double to 120 million tonnes by 2050.” – WEF


E-waste management in South Africa

Electronic waste disposal in South Africa is governed by the National Environmental Management Waste Act 59 of 2008, the National Environmental Management Act of 1998, and the 2020 National Waste Strategy; the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) was established in 2008 to manage the establishment of a sustainable environmentally sound e-waste management system for the country. 

“In order for us to be compliant with the National Environmental Management: Waste Act and the Industry Waste Management Plan (IWMP) whereby manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and distributors of electrical and electronic equipment are obligated to take back and recycle all types of end-of-life products, eWASA has registered as a PRO in all three sectors, i.e. Electrical and Electronic Equipment, Lighting as well as Paper and Packaging. All three of these sectors have their own types of packaging which need to form part of our strategy as we aim to create a “one-stop shop” for our members,” – Keith Anderson, Chief Executive Officer of eWASA.

So what is e-waste? The answer is in the term itself: “e” stands for everything electrical and electronic, anything that you need to plug into an electrical power source – the list is long, and growing. Not only has the variety of these goods increased in recent years but with built-in obsolescence, a strategy that is woven into money-making manufacturing the world over, the mountains of e-waste generated are becoming Himalayan. One small device, which is adding to the pile is the cell phone:

“In 2022, almost 47 million South Africans accessed the internet through any kind of mobile device. In 2027, this figure is projected to amount to almost 58 million mobile internet users, up by 20.77 percent from 2022.”  – statista

Screenshot 2023 09 29 at 15.42.45

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment estimates an annual national average of 360 000 tonnes of e-waste makes up 5% to 8% of municipal solid waste and is growing at a rate three times faster than any other.

What do you do with your electronic devices when they reach the point of no return?  Light bulbs, cell phones, cell phone chargers, lamps, dead stoves, TVs, defunct DVD players, fridges, fax machines, batteries, battery chargers etc.? They can’t be treated as ordinary, everyday disposable rubbish. 

E-waste contains several hundred different substances such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium and flame retardants that create dioxin emissions when burned and unsafe handling and disposal of e-waste can have significant, irreversible effects on the environment, such as the pollution and degradation of air and water quality and soil contamination. So dumping in landfills is a dangerous long-term non-solution and there are other more environmentally friendly ways forward.

Twin opportunities – waste disposal and job creation

Just as we have recycling and upcycling, e-cycling is a system in which electronic resources are reused in multiple ways.

“E-cycling creates jobs, retains more value in the industry and the repaired electronics gives people access to low-cost technology.

“E-waste is also extremely valuable as a rich source of secondary raw material. From every 1 million recycled mobile phones approximately 16,000 kilograms of copper, 350 kilograms of silver, 34 kilograms of gold and 15 kilograms of palladium can be recovered.”  – Go Legal

The Western Cape alone is estimated to have generated between 43 290 – 68 501 tonnes of e-waste in 2020 with a market value estimated at between R55.2 – R109.8-million per year. The province is an important e-waste aggregation node for the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, and a key source of e-waste for Gauteng’s pre-processors and processors.

Dismantled materials and components, and aggregate materials from other provinces, are transported to Gauteng for processing or are exported. South Africa has a well-developed network of formal and informal collectors and consolidators, with some e-waste reaching pre-processors and refurbishers.  2022 Waste Market Intelligence Report, Green Cape

An exciting, innovative e-waste project listed on the Gauteng e-government website is the partnership between the government and a tertiary institution. Launched in March 2022 by Gauteng Premier David Makhura and MEC Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, the Gauteng Department of e-Government together with the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has developed an e-Waste Management System to help address both the mounting e-waste and the current unemployment crisis in Gauteng.

Premier David Makhura said the e-Waste Management partnership, will enable the provincial government to coordinate efforts for the disposal and recycling of e-waste across the Gauteng City Region. This was reinforced by MEC Nkomo-Ralehoko:

“The e-waste management system will also assist in inspiring creativity amongst the youth, to be able to recycle and create something meaningful from discarded gadgets. This will further assist in stimulating the economy through SMME support and job creation” said the MEC. 

University of Johannesburg Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, Professor Saurabh Sinha, expanded on the possibility of job opportunities created by the e-waste management system and the training that this would require:

“To achieve this goal, a blended learning approach will be followed. The Johannesburg Business School and the Institute for Intelligent Systems will develop a series of online, asynchronous short learning programmes that entrepreneurs in the province can access. We want to unlock solutions that not only address issues such as e-waste but also create a value chain that speaks to SMMEs and the informal sector through the creation of a circular economy,” said Sinha.

Innovative projects such as these are not only good news for the environment, they achieve the vital objectives of job creation, poverty alleviation and training and lead to long-term sustainability.

Read more from the 6th edition of ESG: The Future of Sustainability:

September 29, 2023

Written by Editor

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