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Poor policies fuel local e-waste

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Inadequate policies and lack of legislation around e-waste are major obstacles in the implementation of sustainable e-waste management systems in SA, according to the United Nations.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has identified barriers to sustainable e-waste recycling programmes in a report entitled “Recycling - from e-waste to resources”, released this week.

According to the organisation, SA does not have any dedicated legislation dealing with e-waste. The report only identifies laws which have a bearing on e-waste, in broader topics like the environment, water, air, waste, hazardous substances, and health and safety. “Answers are certainly found in each of these; however, they examine the issue from a different perspective, thereby confusing the problem,” it points out.

UNEP also states that enforcement of these laws is done by different government departments, so there's no uniform approach in dealing with e-waste or hazardous waste in general.

“Some by-laws at the municipal level have a potentially negative impact on recycling or collection activities in so far as hazardous waste, storage, collection and transport are concerned,” the organisation says. “It is debatable to what extent e-waste should be treated - in terms of collection, storage and transport - and this poses a possible difficulty for e-waste recyclers,” UNEP says.

The organisation adds there is often rivalry and lack of cooperation at national and provincial level, since both share constitutional power on pollution.

Further hurdles

According to UNEP, many e-waste recyclers and refurbishers are not yet ISO compliant. “While environmental management programmes are in place, challenges still exist, including onsite incineration, exposed e-waste, and the insufficient containment of potential site run-off.”

There is also a lack of enforcement of environmental health and safety standards in the country. This includes workers' protection, lack of safety, equipment and safety information.

Another disturbing factor, according to UNEP, is that potentially hazardous e-waste is disposed in landfills.

Logistics, especially transport costs, are a key challenge in creating a sustainable e-waste management system, it states. “For white goods, storage costs and floor space are key cost drivers.” Costs for disposing and transport of hazardous waste are the key concerns for large-scale recycling business models, the organisation points out.

Other barriers are that formal recyclers could exploit informal workers, providing no guaranteed income, for example. “Crime, recycling industry corruption, and illegal trading, with Telkom cabling, for example, are other barriers to sustainable e-waste recycling.”

Unless developing countries act quickly to break down these barriers, UNEP warns, they will be inundated with overwhelming hazardous e-waste mountains of old cellphones, computers and gadgets that endanger the environment.

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