No time to e-waste

Staff Writer
By Staff Writer, ITWeb
Johannesburg, 09 Jul 2009

E-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the country, says Keith Anderson, chairman of the e-waste association of SA (eWASA). “If we don't start taking a look at things now, it's going to become a major problem in the next few years.”

Industry body eWASA, along with several corporate groups, recently embarked on a number of initiatives that promote e-waste recycling, including take-back services for consumers and businesses.

“The drive must come from industry,” says Anderson, arguing that manufacturers need to commit to the responsible management and disposal of electronic goods. He stresses that when eWASA was formed last year, it worked hard to get industry players onboard.

E-waste is a broad term for any end-of-life or discarded electronic or electric products, from consumer electronics such as fridges and microwaves, to computer hardware, cooling systems, and mobile devices.

“Historically, when products reach their end of life they wind up in landfill sites,“ says Anderson. He explains that dumping old electronic equipment can lead to hazardous components including lead, mercury, copper and cadmium, leaching into ground water.

He says eWASA strives to have zero content going to landfills, with effective waste management focusing on three 'R's: reusing equipment where possible, refurbishing it otherwise, or, as a last resort, recycling it. Plastics can be recycled into roof tiles for sub-economic housing, or the very collection bins in which items are disposed of, according to Anderson.

Major retailers such as Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Makro will soon have collection points to which consumers can bring end-of-life equipment, says Anderson. While deposit bins for compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are already available, there are plans to install containers for larger consumer electronic items.

“By end September, you'll find larger sites that can take things like microwaves and fridges, which will be collected and recycled in an environmentally responsible way,” he says.

Another project involves the building of a plant in Germiston where CFLs can be recycled, which should be ready by October. While CFLs last longer and are more energy efficient, they contain mercury and have to be recycled in specific way.

Down to business

In April, Hewlett-Packard (HP) announced a business-to-business take back service for e-waste whereby customers can dispose of and recycle IT hardware by making an online request. The Web-based system sees submissions being routed via a call centre to approved recycling and disposal service providers that meet national legislation and HP's internal environmental standards. Secure data destruction can also be carried out to prevent sensitive information from getting lost or misplaced in the process.

Ruben Janse van Rensburg, environmental business lead at HP, says response has been positive, with several corporate customers already making use of the service. “The company is still in the early phases of its marketing plan and uptake is expected to grow,” he adds.

According to an HP statement, an estimated 50 000 tonnes of electronic goods are thrown away in SA each year.

Janse van Rensburg says it is a challenge to find local organisations that offer end-to-end recycling services, as SA is still in “the really early stages” with no one-stop-shop to handle the entire treatment process.

“There is not a one fit service provider available locally as yet, so various groups handle different components to ensure compliance with HP's stringent global recycling standards.”

He adds that while demand for these kinds of services is increasing, it is largely among big corporate customers. Social responsibility related to environmental commitment, ISO 14001, involvement with the World Wildlife Fund, and government requirements are all driving factors, according to Janse van Rensburg.

“It's globally-accepted good practice to provide an infrastructure that supports the entire product life cycle,” says Janse van Rensburg. “As a producer, end-of-life support for your own product is non-negotiable.” He argues that producers have to make decisions regarding the use of hazardous materials and environmental impact in the design phase of product development.

Kobus de Beer, Dell's enterprise brand manager, says adopting a 'green by design' approach to producing IT equipment has a dual function. “From a green perspective, it's about designing products that contain fewer hazardous materials and procuring components for products that have less impact on the environment.” The other aspect is that these products are more efficient, adding business value.

According to De Beer, even simple moves such as decreasing the number of boxes used in the manufacturing and delivery process can make a significant difference. “It's about packaging more smartly; if you're going to the same area to make a delivery, put five PCs in one box.”

Dell recently introduced a global initiative pledging to reduce desktop and laptop packaging, which it said would preserve tens of thousands of trees and save an estimated $8 million.

Collective responsibility

In terms of consumers, Janse van Rensburg says plans are under way to create a collective take-back system for e-waste. “This would provide consumer customers with convenient drop-off points for all their end-of-life waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) products, testing, refurbishment and environmentally responsible recycling.”

Dell is working with eWASA on identifying drop-off sites where people will be able to take notebooks, monitors and other equipment. De Beer says apart from finding approved recyclers that meet industry standards, the cost of recycling is another challenge. However, he believes pressure from customers and stricter legislation will drive companies to overcome these hurdles.

“It comes down to corporate social interest and responsibility,” says De Beer, as customers are questioning companies' 'green image' and looking at the kind of products and processes they create. He adds that, in future, local legislation will very likely see producers penalised if their products contain certain hazardous substances.

This will bring SA's environmental laws in line with those in places like Europe, he argues, which has stringent legislation regarding e-waste through the WEEE Directive.

Anderson says SA has been slow in implementing these kinds of measures and that while some companies are keen to manage their e-waste responsibly, the facilities are not in place.

He advises IT companies to use economies of scale when it comes to considering an e-waste programme. “If every IT company rushes out and does its own thing, it won't be sustainable. Businesses should join industry bodies like eWASA and work on a collective solution.”