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SA’s problem in managing electronic waste (e-waste) is getting worse because of lack of recycling infrastructure, poor legislation and ignorance, according to industry commentators.
“I think right now, authorities have considered general waste as a bigger priority than IT waste.”

This is according to Jean Cox-Kearns, who leads the Dell Take Back Organisation for the EMEA region.
She explains that a lot of recycling infrastructure in SA has been focused on general waste, such as plastic and paper, but not enough investment is being made in the development of infrastructure to facilitate recycling of computers, mobile phones and ink cartridges.

Cox-Kearns indicates that in SA currently lacks infrastructure to facilitate e-waste recycling. “Recycling infrastructure cannot be sustained without the volume of e-waste to encourage recyclers to set-up facilities in these countries,” she notes.

During a sustainable marketing conference recently held in Sandton, Cox-Kearns pointed out that there has been growing interest among global IT vendors to invest in e-waste recycling programmes.
Cox-Kearns indicated that more needs to be done around awareness and education programmes to incentivise business and consumers to recycle used and old electronics.

She said the problem of e-waste is a challenge that needs to be solved via public and private partnerships. “The government has asked industry to recommend a solution rather than government just implementing a solution by itself.”

“Africa is the number one continent where e-waste is being shipped in disguised as reusable equipment.
“Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria are getting an influx of e-waste and are trying to manage it. The problem is that a lot of poor families depend on informal recycling as a living. They burn old computers to try and get the copper. The IT industry as a whole needs to look for ways to bring that into a formal recycling environment, but also to protect the incomes of these families.”

“We are working with other companies and schools to facilitate open dialogue in the industry and Dell’s goal is to propose solutions to the SA government to manage e-waste and investing in recycling infrastructure.

Africa a dumping ground

Tim James, founder of SustainableIT, explains that the biggest stumbling block in the control of e-waste is poor communication. “SA, as the economic hub of Africa, should be taking the lead in terms of e-waste.

James agrees with Cox-Kearns, adding that Africa has become a dumping ground for e-waste.

“A lot of companies think that donating PCs through their social responsibility initiatives is a good way to get rid of their old equipment. The reality is that their equipment is often not fit for use for charities and disadvantaged communities and ends up on a dumping ground anyway.”

James indicates that the Waste Management Act that was promulgated in March last year does not deal with the e-waste problem effectively. He calls for more to be done from government.

Lacking legislation

Keith Anderson, chairman of the e-Waste Association of SA (eWasa), says that SA is far behind Europe in terms of e-waste legislation and does not meet the same European standards in recycling initiatives.

“In the EU, the total weight of electronic appliances dumped in 2005 was 9.3 million tonnes and the figure is growing. Our market is far smaller than that, but it’s still a problem because a lot of global companies are sending computer donations into Africa, particularly in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya.”

Anderson explains that a more holistic solution is needed. Anderson recently visited the Nigerian government to help educate people on ways to curb e-waste. He says the government is linking to change legislation in terms of how computer donations are accepted.

“Some companies think they are doing good by donating computers, but they are actually adding to the problem.” He says a solution to this problem lies in tracking of the equipment.

eWasa is currently involved in an initiative that monitors and tracks electronic goods that are donated to charities from collection point until the end of the machine’s lifecycle where it will be safely recycled.

According to Anderson, currently there is no exact figure on the amount of e-waste that is being generated in SA nor the effect it is having on landfills and the environment. However, eWasa is currently busy with a research project to put together an e-waste estimate in SA.

eWasa defines e-waste as electronic waste that includes ICT equipment, consumer electronics and household appliances. According to the association e-waste contains both valuable and potentially hazardous materials.
According to a landmark report released this year by the United Nations Environment Programme, ‘Recycling – from e-waste to resources’, found that by 2020 in SA and China, e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200% to 400% from 2007 levels, and by 500% in India.

Alex Kayle, IT Web 15 October 2010

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