Toxic e-waste is clogging SA’s dumps. It’s time to reboot our thinking
Globally, e-waste weighing that of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2 was dumped or burnt in 2019
A record 53,6 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in five years, according to the United Nations’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020, released on Thursday.
The new report predicts global e-waste, discarded products with a battery or plug, will reach 74 million Mt by 2030, an almost doubling of e-waste in 16 years.
“This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fuelled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles and few options for repair,” the report said.
In SA electronic waste, anything that runs on electricity, from cellphones and computers to light bulbs and home appliances, makes up as much as eight percent of municipal solid waste and is growing three times faster than any other waste.
In 2016, the UN Environment Programme predicted that obsolete computers in SA would rise by 500% in 2020 compared with 2007. SA’s rate is on a par with China’s.
E-waste is a health and environmental hazard, containing toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury, which damage the human brain or co-ordination system.
According to the new report, Asia generated the greatest volume of e-waste in 2019, about 24.9 million Mt, followed by the Americas, with 13.1 million Mt, and Europe, with 12 million Mt. Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 million Mt and 0.7 million Mt, respectively.
“Only 17.4% of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled. This means gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials, conservatively valued at $57bn (about R963bn) — a sum greater than the GDP of most countries — were mostly dumped or burnt rather than being collected for treatment and reuse,” the report said.
The report found that e-waste management in Africa is dominated by thriving informal-sector collectors and recyclers in most countries. Neither organised take-back systems nor licence provisions for sorting and dismantling e-waste exist.
“Government control of this sector is currently very minimal and inefficient. The handling of e-waste is often processed in back yards by manual stripping to remove electronic boards for resale, open burning of wires to recover few major components (for example copper, aluminium and iron), and the deposition of other bulk components, including CRTs (cathode ray tubes), in open dump sites.
“Few countries, such as SA, Morocco, Egypt, Namibia and Rwanda, have facilities in place for e-waste recycling, but those coexist with a large informal sector. Therefore, those recycling companies have struggled to progress and increase the volumes processed, but interesting pilots and energies are also mobilised through new initiatives.”
“For perspective, last year’s e-waste weighed substantially more than all the adults in Europe, or as much as 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line 125km long,” the report said.
Other key findings from the Global E-waste Monitor 2020:
- Proper e-waste management can help mitigate global warming. In 2019, an estimated 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents were released into the atmosphere from discarded fridges and air conditioners, contributing about 0.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- In per capita terms, last year’s discarded e-waste averaged 7.3kg for every man, woman and child on Earth.
- Europe ranked first worldwide in terms of e-waste generation per capita with 16.2kg. Oceania came second (16.1kg) followed by the Americas (13.3kg). Asia and Africa were much lower at 5.6kg and 2.5kg, respectively.
- An estimated 50 tons of mercury, used in monitors, PCBs (printed circuit boards) and fluorescent and energy-saving light sources, are contained in undocumented flows of e-waste annually.
- E-waste in 2019 was mainly comprised of small equipment (17.4 million Mt), large equipment (13.1 million Mt) and temperature-exchange equipment (10.8 million Mt). Screens and monitors, small IT and telecommunication equipment, and lamps represented 6.7 million Mt, 4.7 million Mt and 0.9 million Mt, respectively.
- Since 2014, the e-waste categories increasing fastest in total weight terms are: temperature-exchange equipment (+ seven percent), large equipment (+ five percent) and lamps and small equipment (+ four percent). According to the report, this trend is driven by the growing consumption of those products in lower-income countries, where they improve living standards. Small IT and telecommunication equipment have been growing more slowly, and screens and monitors have shown a slight decrease (- one percent), explained largely by lighter flat-panel displays replacing heavy CRT monitors and screens.
- Since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation has increased from 61 to 78. While a positive trend, this is far from the target set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is to raise the percentage of countries with e-waste legislation to 50%.