e_waste.jpgBy ignoring reverse logistics – the returns and proper disposal of obsolete products – organisations are not only indirectly damaging the environment, but their corporate reputations. Furthermore, most South African companies fail to take advantage of the potential that exists to make millions of Rands from recycling electronic waste (defined as anything that runs on electricity).

“However, companies will only take recycling seriously once they realise they can make ‘green’ from ‘going green’,” says Joe Walden, director of the US-based Supply Chain Research Centre.

Great potential lies in reverse logistics related to e-waste, both for a positive impact on the bottom line and winning favour with communities who care that the producers of their favourite products are environmentally responsible.

Just how big is the problem?

No reliable figures on e-waste volumes and recycling of e-waste in South Africa are available for the law does not require landfill site owners or recyclers to keep accurate records. However, according to the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA), global figures predict that the average person produces roughly 12kg of e-waste annually. Only 10-15% of this is recycled worldwide while the remaining 85% is sent to landfill or is incinerated.

Lead, mercury, chemicals and other materials found in e-waste, when dumped at landfill sites can leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater. Also, incinerating e-waste may release toxic gases into the atmosphere. “In addition to this hazard, informal waste collectors at landfill sites may also be exposed to these dangerous substances when recovering e-waste,” says Walden.

A golden opportunity

Although toxic if handled and discarded improperly, e-waste is also extremely valuable as source for secondary raw material.

“The goal of reverse logistics is to handle the backward movement of products and capture value from these products while reducing the flow of products to the landfills,” says Walden.

At South African recycling facilities, electrical products are dismantled so that their various component materials, such as precious metals including gold, indium and palladium, ferrous metals and plastics may be reclaimed. According to eWASA, some ferrous metals can be used as secondary raw materials in various manufacturing processes.

“Cathode ray tube monitors can be ground into sand and used in the production of faux marble products. The plastics can be used to build park benches and street signs and the aluminium can be melted down for use in the motor manufacturing industry,” he adds.

“This is a far better option than the practice of many developed countries to ship their e-waste to developing countries where workers dismantling products in poor conditions may be exposed to hazardous waste.” There have been some incidences of e-waste being shipped outside of South Africa for disposal, although this is not believed to be a common practice.

The way forward

“The problem of e-waste is clearly complex, but if each company, as well as the consumers who purchase their products, begin to make changes in how they handle or dispose of their e-waste, there is no doubt in my mind that we can overcome this challenge,” Walden concludes. “One person can make a difference if they choose to do so.”