South Africa is missing out on the benefits of electronic waste (e-waste) generated within the country to foreign countries.
This is one of the biggest findings from a study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and autonomous research and development (R&D) organisation, Mintek.
According to the study, at least 90% of the printed circuit boards and 80% of the plastic recovered from e-waste in SA are exported for reprocessing. In doing so, the country loses access to valuable metals, as well as the opportunity to create jobs.
Keith Anderson, chairman of the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWasa), concurs with the study findings, saying the majority of e-waste industry players have little choice than to export the waste.
"Firstly, e-waste is being exported because SA does not have the required technology to process e-waste on a large scale," he points out.
"The other reason is the exchange rate," Anderson adds. "If an e-waste dealer exports to other countries, they will be paid in foreign currency such as US dollars, euros, etc, which will see them getting more money, unlike selling locally."
eWasa points out e-waste is both valuable as a source for secondary raw material, and toxic if handled and discarded improperly. It notes that due to lower environmental standards and working conditions in China and India, e-waste is being sent to these countries for processing - in most cases illegally.
The CSIR, DST and Mintek research is one of the deliverables of SA's 10-year Waste Research, Development and Innovation (RD&I) Roadmap - a DST programme hosted by the CSIR.
"The aim of the study was to assess the technology currently used in the dismantling, pre-processing and processing of e-waste in South Africa," says professor Linda Godfrey, manager of the Waste RDI Roadmap Implementation Unit at the CSIR.
"By knowing what technology is currently in use and where the gaps are, we are able to identify new areas for research and innovation, both technological and social innovation," she says. However, this study was always going to be about more than just identifying research needs."
To identify new opportunities for research and innovation, the project team needed to generate a picture of the e-waste recycling landscape in SA, the various role-players and the flows of e-waste within and beyond the borders of the country, says Dr Makhapa Makhafola, general manager of R&D at Mintek.
Determining the material flows for the various e-waste fractions, such as metal, glass, plastic and so forth, was important in identifying the opportunities for SA's e-waste recycling economy, he points out.
"The question we face is: how do we retain our secondary resources, such as e-waste, for as long as possible in our local value chain before they move into the global economy?" says Godfrey.
However, she notes, a startling finding of the study is that the growth of SA's e-waste recycling sector is currently not determined by technology or skills.
The biggest constraint to growing SA's e-waste recycling economy is access to the waste. The last official statistics for SA (2011) showed only 11% of the e-waste generated in the country was recycled.
"This doesn't mean that 89% of our end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment ends up in landfills, although there certainly is leakage," Godfrey explains.
"Instead, much of our e-waste is locked up in offices, homes, storerooms and so forth. By increasing the collection, sorting and recycling of waste in SA, we create more opportunities to recover valuable resources that can feed into downstream manufacturing, and as a result, more opportunities for jobs and enterprise development."
She notes the research showed that currently, the sector generates around 25 jobs per 1 000 tonnes of handled e-waste.
"If we can unlock this uncollected e-waste into the local value chain, we can create opportunities to grow SA's e-waste recycling economy, as well as opportunities to increase investment in appropriate technologies and in innovative new technologies," says Godfrey.
But, it is not only about recycling, says Dr Henry Roman, director for environmental services and technologies at the DST.
"As this research showed, e-waste dismantling is currently not profitable as a standalone activity for small businesses. Up to 60% of the revenue of small e-waste recycling businesses is generated through refurbishment, with more than half of small businesses considering recycling a secondary activity.
"This is encouraging since refurbishment and reuse allows us to keep limited resources in circulation for longer, in line with the principles of a circular economy. We also know that refurbishment and reuse typically create more jobs than recycling, and certainly more jobs than disposal," Roman explains.