THE ERA OF ELECTRONICS AND RAPID INFORMATION HAS MADE OUR LIVES SIMPLER IN MANY WAYS – BUT WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT THE GROWING AVALANCHE OF DISCARDED ELECTRONIC JUNK (E-WASTE) POISONING THE ENVIRONMENT? TONY CARNIE INVESTIGATES
Pictures Tony Carnie
The modern economy generates nearly 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year – roughly 6kg a person annually, though this average weight is much higher in wealthier communities. The “junk” includes old computers, cellphones, televisions and all manner of hi-tech electronic gadgetry that contains a rich assortment of commercially valuable metals and chemicals.
But it’s not only computers or phones. Just think about those vast electronic bundles of copper and plastic cabling that snake through the bodies of our cars, aeroplanes, offices and homes like electronic veins.
Yet less than 20% of this e-waste is recycled globally – creating serious health risks for people, water, soil and food supplies if toxic or cancer-causing pollutants leak out into the environment from legal and illegal dumping.
Closer to home, the recycling rate is even worse. A recent study by Mintek and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research says that currently, only 11% of waste electrical and electronic equipment is treated and recycled in South Africa.
Quite apart from the health risks posed by dumping dangerous waste into the environment and landfills, valuable metals and other resources also go to waste.
For example, a recent United Nations report suggests that up to 7% of the world’s gold may be bound up in e-waste components such as printed circuit boards for computers and mobile phones. And while there may be some gold in those mounds of e-waste, collecting and recovering valuable metals, chemicals and other potentially hazardous substances is not a simple matter.
Just ask Jami Nash, founder of the Electronic Cemetery – a Durban- based company that provides a free pick-up service for a large variety of e-waste streams.
Jami started his company nearly 10 years ago, working from his double garage at home. The business expanded further when he rented a warehouse in Pinetown. Then last year – joined by his wife Natalie and business partner Malcolm Silver – he moved to a new industrial park in Hillcrest.
Jami says he is not making a fortune. In fact, he barely breaks even most months because of the cost of renting a factory, collecting e-waste from all over Durban and hiring staff to sort and dismantle it.
The company also has a side line business: refurbishing and reselling old personal computers, laptops and some other gadgets at discount prices. As an example, a second-hand laptop (costing R8 000 when brand new) sells for about R1 500, with a six-month guarantee that can be extended for two years.
However, his main focus is to reduce e-waste pollution by dismantling electronic products to extract valuables such as copper, aluminium, gold, steel and plastic. The metals and plastic are not melted by him, but sold to larger recyclers and processors.
Jami would like to expand beyond the current collection volume of about 500kg a day, but this will require new permits and other major capital costs.
Some waste fractions are also not profitable and currently cannot be recycled in SA, so the company ends up paying fees to dispose of a small portion of such waste in landfill or hazardous waste sites.
Jami would like the government to create more incentives for manufacturers and the recycling industry to establish a cradle- to-grave approach for e-waste, including subsidies for recyclers.
“There is a lot of legislation and taxation, but very little assistance at the moment,” he says. *
FOR MORE INFO
Jami Nash: 079 347 7063; www.electronic-cemetery.com
The Electronic Cemetery does not handle old fluorescent tubes and bulbs, but a new glass lamp recycling facility – the first in Africa – was established in 2014 in Pietermaritzburg by e-Waste Africa. The company does not have its own collection points, but picks up glass lamps from a number of retailers, including Makro and Pick n Pay.
Members of the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) have established more than 1 000 collection points across the country. For more information, contact eWASA: 031 535 7146; email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.ewasa.org