E-Waste: South Africa's Next Gold Rush?

The tide of e-waste is growing quickly in South Africa. But with a number of incoming laws, regulations and voluntary agreements, the e-waste recycling industry has a golden opportunity to protect the environment and prosper.

With its rapidly growing appetite for electrical and electronic devices, the tide of domestically produced e-waste is set to rise significantly in South Africa. But with a number of incoming laws, regulations and voluntary agreements, the e-waste recycling industry has a golden opportunity to protect the environment and prosper.

by Dr Koebu Khalema

In 2008, an assessment published by the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) noted concerning statistics on the state of e-waste in the country. Less than three-years later, however, the country implemented a new law and a technical strategy for dealing with the issue, and is now advising its African neighbours on best practice principles

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One of the most exciting developments has been the promulgation of the Waste Act, 59 of 2008, and Notice GN 718 of 3 July 2009. It is now illegal for individuals or companies to throw away anything that constitutes e-waste.

Whether a light bulb, hairdryer, or computer - these appliances now need to be recycled in a responsible way. Both government and Section 21 companies (not for profit service providers) such as the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) have developed guidelines to ensure safe and sustainable recycling processes.

As has been accepted, the global consumption of electronics and the trade of e-waste inextricably link First and Third World countries together through economic development and environmental degradation.

South Africa, like most of modern society, has come to rely heavily on IT and computers for everything from work and production, to information and entertainment.

The Rising Tide of E-Waste

The increased production and consumption of electronic equipment has led to a rapid growth in e-waste. When improperly disposed of, this can be associated with health risks and toxic environmental pollution from lead, mercury and other toxic compounds found in most computers and monitors.

Public awareness campaigns that spell out the hazards of e-waste should be scaled up, according to an assessment of previous grass roots projects

Owing to several factors, such as the identification of e-waste as a life threatening issue, and the lack of regulation at ground level, the management of e-waste in South Africa is in its infancy.

The most popular methods for managing of e-waste are led by the industry itself. They involve extending the lifecycle of electronic products in order to reduce e-waste and the hazards associated with recycling and disposal. Thus refurbishment and reuse have gained popularity in the sector. The fact is that e-waste recycling is expensive and the costs are not necessarily recovered by the sale of the recovered materials.

E-waste is a particularly difficult issue to deal with as it contains many different materials and lots of extremely hazardous substances. Incorrect disposal can result in many dangerous chemicals damaging the air, the ground and the water. However South Africa currently has no legal framework which deals specifically with e-waste. Unlike the EU's RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) directive, there are no laws to govern the materials used in products that are manufactured. For example, there are manufacturers of printed circuit boards and assembly houses that still offer leaded products - because people are still using them.

It is a fact that the quantity of e-waste to be disposed of is growing rapidly throughout the world and developing countries contribute a sizeable share. E-waste volumes are expected to increase significantly in South Africa in the near future.

Many citizens and organisations believe that 'Africa is becoming a dumping ground for America and Europe under the guise of donations', and that there is a close connection between the dumping of e-waste and poverty.

Rising to the challenge

In 2008 eWASA was established to help establish an sustainable environmentally sound e-waste management system for the country.

Since then the non-profit organisation has been working with manufactures, vendors and distributors of electronic and electrical goods and e-waste handlers to manage e-waste effectively.

As proposed by Anahide Bondolfi as early as 2007 in The Green e-Waste Channel: model for a reuse and recycling system of electronic waste in South Africa, it is necessary to define the roles of possible stakeholders.

The Channel is defined as the infrastructure and the processes needed to reuse and recycle e-waste. The main stakeholders are refurbishers, collectors and processors. Producers, the government and NGOs can support the Green e-Waste Channel through a management, legislative and facilitative process.

Analysis shows that the model reveals many opportunities with advantages for all stakeholders: a) Sufficient material can be provided to processors and refurbishers; b) Safe jobs can be created; c) A convenient solution can be provided for the consumers; d) A solution for end-of-life equipment can be offered for the producers and e) The channel helps respecting national and international regulations.

Furthermore, the current situation in South Africa is favourable for the successful introduction of a Green e-Waste Channel - the e-waste situation is relatively clean, with limited import and informal recycling, and there is a general move towards more sustainable management.

Opportunity Knocks

The good news is that some corporations in the country are already embarking on their own programs to curb the problem of e-waste, and these initiatives are opening opportunities for a wider economic activity in this high unemployment condition.

According to a survey run by ITWeb in partnership with Africa e-Waste, almost half of South African organisations are unaware that the country has legislation that criminalises the dumping of e-waste. The survey investigated whether South African organisations understand the nature of e-waste, the laws regarding the dumping of e-waste, and whether they know of the legislation that has been passed.

With a strong public education program, many South Africans would appreciate the contribution e-waste can make to their lives, while they in turn contribute to improving their environment. Examples have been seen with can and metal collection schemes. As long as there is money that an ordinary person can make, many will make efforts to deliver waste electronics to processors. The results of some studies suggest that white goods are likely to become a major feature of e-waste volumes in the future - even surpassing IT as a tonnage percentage of the waste stream. For example, it is likely that microwaves will rival printers in the number of units entering the waste stream in the next five years.

However, despite e-waste initiatives elsewhere in the world, white goods vendors have so far not actively engaged in attempts to develop an industry-led e-waste solution in South Africa.

According to estimates, white goods, consumer electronics and IT in South African homes amount to between one million and two million tonnes, most of which is likely to enter the waste stream in the next five to 10 years.

While the storage of e-waste in institutions such as government departments and universities is reported to be high, the domestic storage of e-waste is also substantial – the amount of e-waste found at 358 middle-class households by one survey would fill two-thirds of a 20 foot shipping container.

Technical Challenges

South Africa's problem in managing e-waste is getting worse because of a lack of recycling infrastructure, poor legislation and ignorance, according to industry commentators. The authorities are thought to consider general waste as a bigger priority than IT wastes still.

Processors maintain that the biggest challenge facing the country at the moment is that there is no dedicated legislation to deal with the problem. However, the introduction of the new National Environmental Management Waste Bill has direct implications for e-waste management. The bill effectively places the onus on industry to develop an e-waste management system. If the government can dedicate efforts to the regulation of the waste stream some incentives may be added and the collection would be more efficient.

South Africa faces a number of technical challenges when it comes to e-waste. These include dealing with hazardous fraction, such as Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) glass, and finding markets for flame-retardant plastics. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) monitors are also likely to present a key challenge in the future, while the technology does not currently exist in the country for the environmentally friendly recycling of rechargeable batteries or refrigerators.

At the same time, basic environmental precautions are absent at some recyclers, and health and safety regulations are loosely enforced. Most refurbishes and recyclers are not ISO compliant. Furthermore, the cost of logistics remains a major cost challenge for recyclers. It is possible through the manual dismantling of discarded technology for people to earn at least a minimum wage, and this is preventing the flow of waste volumes regionally and nationally.

This has been demonstrated by grassroots e-waste pilot projects. The assessment of these projects suggests that more new PCs are sold into the market each year than are recycled, which illustrates the opportunity for job creation and economic development presented by e-waste.

Finally, informal e-waste recycling usually only includes the early stages of recycling - collection, crude dismantling and sorting. Informal recyclers are vulnerable, often deal with e-waste in a hazardous way, and are open to exploitation.

Among other things, an assessment of previous grass roots projects recommended the scaling up of public awareness campaigns that spell out the hazards of e-waste. It also recommended the active engagement of all stakeholders in the current drive by eWASA to establish an e-waste management system, the support of small business start-ups and informal recyclers, and support for investment in new recycling technology through incentives.

Current waste management legislation in South Africa does not require landfill owners or recyclers to keep accurate records regarding e-waste volumes. Therefore accurate figures on volumes and the recycling of e-waste are currently unknown, according to Keith Anderson, chairman of eWASA.

Anderson believes that e-waste recycling rates in South Africa are improving but are not at an international standard yet due to poor education and the high cost of e-waste recycling plants.

EWASA's Plan

eWASA has prepared an Industry Waste Management Plan, which was submitted to the Department of Environmental Affairs in 2010.

The high costs to set up recycling plants for e-waste are posing a major challenge to the industry, according to Anderson. The eWASA draft plan proposes that a small green fee be paid by consumers when purchasing electronic products and that this fee be used to assist with the setting up of suitable recycling facilities.

The document contains practical examples of good waste management practices in various municipalities in South Africa. The focus is specically on good practice for domestic and commercial waste. There are always opportunities for improving the way waste is managed, and as such, the plan encourages the sharing of good management ideas. The purpose of the document is to share examples, without being prescriptive, and in so doing stimulate creative thinking and encourage good practices. Several municipalities contributed and these were identified from a list of cleanest town competition winners and by word-of-mouth.

ICT Producers Group

Since August 2010 ICT producers Acer, Cisco, Dell, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Nokia have been working together as a producers forum on the topic of e-waste management.

In 2011 these companies formalised their structure under the IT Association of South Africa and go by the new name of the forum ITA PEG (Producer Environmental Group).

The ITA PEG has developed a voluntary Waste Management Plan for the industry under the umbrella of the IT Association of South Africa. The plan describes the waste related issues within the ICT industry sector and specifies how industry will address these issues, giving specific actions, targets and time frames.

Recycling e-waste can be expensive and the market price of the materials recovered does not necessarily cover the costs, hence refurbishment and reuse is popular in South Africa

The Plan was built on the overarching principles that e-waste is an opportunity to recover valuable materials, to create jobs and to grow the recycling industry in South Africa. The plan takes care of the entire ICT e-waste stream and seeks to harness existing recycling infrastructure and encourage industry growth and job creation through an effective structure.

The plan calls on all manufacturers and importers of new and used Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) in South Africa to maintain a registry of e-waste and set up collective schemes. The Registry would cover elements of Producer Registration and also calculate Producer Obligation using data from Producers and Compliance Schemes.

Compliance Schemes on the other hand, as registered by the E-Waste Registry will endevour to drive the fulfilment of Producer Obligation by contracting with recyclers that can meet standards set by registry, and by ensuring proper logistics from collectors to recyclers.

Furthermore, they will report the actual collected and treated weights per category and by fraction into the Registry and thereby invoice members based on current market share calculations from the Registry.

However, for full and effective implementation of the plan, the government needs to level the playing field with legislation and regulation that will drive role players to act.


South Africa has at least six direct neighbours, which depend largely on its trade. These are Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

This trade not only involves goods for sale and consumption but also the trade in wastes. Because of lack of infrastructure in these countries, most of their hazardous waste is exported into South Africa, where possible for recycling.


In 1886 the Witwatersrand Gold Rush led to the establishment of Johannesburg. For years South Africa's mining industry has exported huge quantities of precious materials. Now, growing volumes of e-waste offer a new economic and environmental opportunity.

It is often said that there is more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of good quality ore. That being the case, if South Africa can grasp the nettle, in the coming years it could be in for a gold rush of a different kind.

Dr Koebu Khalema is a program officer at the Africa Institute-for the Environmentally Sound Management of Hazardous and Other Wastes, an intergovernmental organisation housed in the Department of Environmental Affairs of the Government of South Africa.