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E-waste out of control

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The world is losing the war against e-waste. This is according to a study by the United Nations University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The study cited shortened life cycles of consumer electronics, coupled with a sharp increase in new electronics entering the market as the key drivers behind an increase in e-waste. If current trends continue, the research forecasts that by 2018, e-waste will reach an annual volume of 65.4 million tons, which is equivalent to the weight of 200 Empire State Buildings or 11 Great Pyramids of Giza.

While the US is one of the biggest culprits - with roughly 10 million tons of new electronics entering the market last year alone and each US citizen generating an average of about 30kgs of e-waste each year - the study found the problem is a global one.

A large percentage of the electronic waste generated in the US and Europe is repaired and resold to Africa, where the goods are re-used before being informally recycled. This informal recycling generally involves the burning of old electronics to remove metals like copper and aluminium from the unwanted hardware. But this method of extracting raw materials from old electronics releases hazardous chemicals that can poison members of the community and cause water and air pollution.

In an attempt to tackle this problem, many large corporations are working to tackle the e-waste issue. Dell has partnered with e-Waste Solutions Alliance for Africa in Kenya to improve recycling efforts. The initiative has seen about 40 collection points being established, where the man on the street can sell e-waste to groups better equipped to dispose of the unwanted electronics.

Locally, the e-waste epidemic has been labelled as a potential cash cow for South Africa. In 2008, the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) was established to create an environmentally sound e-waste management system. And with the establishment of proper recycling facilities, precious metals including gold, indium and palladium can safely be reclaimed and re-used.

However, in order for e-waste recycling initiatives to be successful, companies and consumers must be more mindful about how they handle their electronics and how they dispose of them, says eWASA. It also requires government to implement sufficient legislation to ensure no unwanted electronic goods are disposed of incorrectly.

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