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By Zanele Mbengo

Journalist


E-waste crisis demands innovative solutions, experts urge

Experts warn of the growing e-waste challenge, stressing the need for innovative solutions to handle toxic materials and mitigate environmental risks.


While technology grows in leaps and bounds it leaves in its wake 50 million tons of e-waste globally every year – a challenge that demands innovative solutions, according to experts.

Although most e-waste is not hazardous, it is growing at about four times the rate of solid municipal waste, said Ashley du Plooy, CEO at E-Waste Recycling Authority.

“But some e-waste has focus material, known as toxic materials, and are normally found in fairly small quantities in various electronic equipment. When put together they potentially have a huge negative impact.”

Only between 7% and 12% e-waste recycled formally

South Africa generates tons of e-waste, with only between 7% and 12% recycled formally, said Malcolm Whitehouse, operations executive at Waste Association of South Africa.

Many elements found in e-waste were toxic to human and environmental health, he said.

It was imperative to recycle those devices in an “environmentally friendly and compliant manner” to ensure none of the toxic materials found their way into the country’s water courses or ground water systems.

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“Some elements include cadmium, mercury and beryllium. Effects can range from severe illness and disability, to even to death, if ingested unwittingly,” Whitehouse said.

“This is why e-waste recycling is strictly controlled through legislation, norms and standards and measures to ensure safe and compliant handling of all e-waste.”

Uses grow by at least 2.5m tons yearly

According to a report by AST Recycling, each year, the amount of electric and electronic equipment the world uses grows by at least 2.5 million tons.

In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million tons of e-waste – about 7.3kg per person and equivalent in weight to 350 cruise ships.

“By 2030, the global total could swell to 74.7 million tons, almost doubling the annual amount of new e-waste. Discarded electric and electronic products are forming the fastest growing domestic waste stream worldwide,” the report said.

“Growing global demand is outpacing our capacity to recycle or dispose of electronic products safely. Once they’re obsolete and discarded, these products can end up accumulating in the environment, polluting habitats and harming people and wildlife,” it noted.

ALSO READ: Groundbreaking e-waste recycling initiative launched

Concentration of batteries pose a fire risk

According to Du Plooy, the concentration of batteries – especially lithium ion batteries – posed a fire risk because they contain unstable chemicals.

“Think of people burning cables at the side of the road: those cables releases toxic fumes and often children are playing there,” he said.

“If materials such as cadmium get into the soil through leaching, they harm the quality of the soil, which will later cause harm to the quality of water consumed by people.”

Whitehouse said all e-waste was made up of large, small and medium household goods, such as computers, laptops, cellphones and other gadgets.

“Any devise that runs on batteries, electricity, solar power or wind generated power is deemed to become e-waste at [the] end of [its] life.”

Up to 98% of all components found in electronics could be recycled in the country “with manual dismantling techniques, which are conducive to job creation”, he added.

ALSO READ: Locals encouraged to use e-waste bin in uMhlanga

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