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  • Writer's pictureWorld Cleanup Day / South Africa

Rebooting e-waste

Updated: May 8, 2023

Do you know what happens with discarded phones, laptops, batteries, washing machines or any other electronics?

Well, it's called e-waste, and it poses very specific challenges.

Luckily, there are many initiatives to reduce the amounts of e-waste and to improve the ways in which we manage these waste streams.

It is estimated that South Africa generates up to 12.7 million tonnes of waste annually and in 2018, up to 75% of waste generated in South Africa was diverted to landfills, according to a 2020 report.

Many of South Africa's municipalities are running out of landfill space. That is why it's so important not to send anything unnecessary to landfills.

So, it's good to know that that South Africa is implementing policies to improve the management of waste.

One such example is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Regulations. EPR Regulations place the responsibility of waste management on producers by requiring them to take ownership of the end-of-life of products they put onto the market. This means that producers can't just produce any kind of environmentally damaging products without worrying what will happen once that product is discarded.

EPR Regulations have been in place in countries like Europe and the United Sates for around 20 years. More recently, that EPR Regulations were introduced in South Africa by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment in 2021.

So, let's have a look at EPR regulations around three waste streams: paper and packaging, electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and lighting.

Hazardous Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment” (lamps) and “Lead Acid Batteries” have been prohibited from being disposed to landfill since August 2016 and “Hazardous Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment” (other) has been prohibited from being disposed to landfill from August 2021.

According to Keith Anderson, the CEO of the EPR Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA), EPR legislation requires that all importers, manufacturers, producers, distributors and retailers have to ensure that their products are treated responsibly and diverted from landfill when they reach their end of life.

“They can do that themselves by setting up a takeback system, or they can join a PRO, which stands for Producer Responsibility Organisation, like eWASA,” he says.

If you want to be a responsible consumer, it is necessary that you also understand these processes so that you support the producers who are abiding by these regulations and understand that the money you’re paying is making a difference.

Keith Anderson - CEO of eWASA

“If I’m a producer and I have to pay an EPR fee, I include that fee into my price, so when the consumer goes and buys the product, they know that this producer is a responsible producer, they will take care of those products. This means that the consumer can take their product when it reaches its end of life to any certified collection point. It’ll then be collected and recycled responsibly,” Anderson explains.

It's not only about the products - it's also about the packaging

Adri Spangenberg, the Packaging Executive at eWASA, adds an important issue: packaging. “Historically, South Africa has had many voluntary PROs, especially in the paper and packaging and EEE sectors,” says Adri. Because these PROs were voluntary, it became necessary to level the playing field. You can’t have just one or two producers paying and the others are not; they then can’t compete in the market.”

By forcing all producers to be part of PROs, the Extended Producer Legislation creates a level of fairness. All producers have to contribute together and take shared responsibility.

Adri Spangenberg - Packaging Executive at eWASA

eWASA has been in the waste management business for 17 years. The appeal for a producer to join them as a PRO is that they have an existing network across South Africa with takeback schemes across all three waste management streams.

When eWASA was formed in 2008, it was called the eWaste Association of South Africa. When the EPR Regulations came into effect in 2021, it became the first PRO to register in all three categories, meaning that instead of just dealing with electronic waste, they could deal with packaging and lighting waste as well. In essence, it became a one-stop shop. This prompted a name change to the EPR Waste Association of South Africa.

The appeal in joining a PRO that handles a variety of waste streams is that many producers don’t only produce electronic or lighting products; they also produce packaging.

And PROs, in turn, are legally audited and have to use the money they receive from producers in a responsible manner that doesn’t just cater to disposing of these waste streams but which also impacts positively on the economy by allowing for job creation, infrastructure development and education and awareness campaigns.

Dealing with these waste streams also requires a specific know-how. As Spangenberg explains, there are various forms of paper and plastic packaging which complicates things as they cannot be recycled together. “Because of the makeup of each product it’s a different process that applies to them.”

Dumisani Siziba - Operations Executive at eWASA

EEE and lightning waste may contain harmful chemicals which, if not treated properly, may contaminate and leach into the environment.

It’s very important that we are careful in how we deal with this waste and make sure that if it has to go to landfill, we’ve taken precautions to treat it and made it safe for it to be disposed of,” says Dumisani Siziba, Operations Executive at eWASA. Even when components in the EEE and lighting waste streams can be recycled, these products first need to be made safe through a process which requires specialist recyclers.

The first priority is to ensure that all EEE waste is beneficiated and feeds into the circular economy which ensures that it’s used again and again. For circularity, most of the components of lighting could feed into industries that make glass and are employing people.”

Crucially, being a responsible consumer goes beyond supporting responsible producers. In order for waste recyclers to carry out their mandate, it’s important for consumers to understand these different processes. This, Spangenberg says, requires an education and awareness campaign, from the producer through to the consumer.

While Anderson and Spangenberg agree that not enough is being done to process our waste, especially when it comes to implementation of policies, Siziba feels we are heading in the right direction – but we need to understand the role we play in the process.

As he says, “The challenge of waste is a worldwide problem. It’s important that all the role players, from the households, communities, municipalities, PROs like eWASA, recyclers, collectors, etc. work in tandem to process waste properly so that instead of waste becoming a nuisance to the environment, it is harnessed as a resource and processed to create products, to create employment and really drive circularity in our economy. It’s very important that all these parties coalesce into driving the objective and spirit of EPR Regulations.”

For a list of recyclers and collectors across the country, visit eWASA’s website.

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