RISKY PILE-UP: When some used technology is exposed to the elements in a landfill site, it becomes dangerous.
THERE’s this one cupboard, when spring cleaning time comes around, which I’m loathe to open.

It’s stuffed to the gills with a old cellphones, an old camera that I spent an intern’s salary on and cannot bear to give away, wires the length of a small intestine, a broken flashlight, some old batteries, short cords with plug points that I’m sure are now classified as ancient technology and a cute mini-keyboard that I thought would come into use at some point in my life, but hasn’t in the past eight years.

What it actually is - it’s just junk. Electronic junk.

It’s easy to accumulate: we buy one item this month, and in three months’ time the product has been updated and now we want the newer, better version.

I’m loathe to toss away an electronic item that had been purchased for a good couple of hundred rands, just because I don’t use it anymore. That’s simply throwing money away.

RISKY PILE-UP: When some used technology is exposed to the elements in a landfill site, it becomes dangerous.


But what do we do, or should we do, with all the waste that piles up? Forget plastic: are we destined to become a planet filled with electronic junk?

Space

I sat down with Keith Anderson, the head of the Electronic Waste Association of South Africa (Ewasa), to find out what I can do.

E-waste, he said, was categorised as anything that required a plug for electricity, or operated by batteries. This would cover most things in a house, from TVs to hair dryers, fridges, battery-operated children’s toys to cellphones.

“The average person generates 6kg of e-waste per year. Can you now imagine 55 million people in South Africa with 6kg of e-waste each. Worldwide, only 12% of e-waste is recycled. The rest ends up in landfill sites, and we are running out of space for landfill sites.

“We don’t have space to simply throw everything we don’t want away. We need to learn to divert items from a landfill site to be better re-used in the economy,” he said.

He used a cellphone as an example. One cellphone contains about 23 different elements, such as silver, copper, plastic and glass, that can be extracted and re-used.

“When you start to separate each part of the phone, you get what we call value for fractions, so each part is now becoming a piece of value.

“Suddenly, this item such as a phone or broken microwave, that would have been destined for the landfill, is now worth something valuable that can be used again in the economy,” he said.

Reuters News reported this week that Americans tossed about $60 million (R835m) worth of gold and silver into the bin when they threw out unwanted cellphones.

In fact, the act of legally sourcing gold via e-waste has led to the term “urban mining” - how’s that for New Age.

To further strengthen the argument for re-using and recycling, Anderson said that while cellphones were not hazardous, the minute they were exposed to the elements such as heat (eg sitting in a landfill site), they became dangerous as heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, in the phone, leached into the soil and could possibly contaminate the water table.

Okay, so we know that e-waste is piling up, that it can be dangerous to the environment, but there could be some hope in recycling or re-using it.

“Look around the house, and if you see unwanted, unused or broken e-waste, take it to one of 1 000 collection points nationally. Visit our website to find out where your nearest point is. It’s all voluntary right now, but our country is on the verge of setting laws for industry waste management plans which will speak to e-waste as well.

“So this act of recycling is going to become standard. The collection points will take the e-waste and dismantle it, or refurbish it to be used again. The items are shredded and then exported,” he said.

The reason they are exported is that South Africa does not yet have the capability to offer a “cradle to cradle” facility where any e-waste can be recycled, but this could happen in the near future.

Visit www.ewasa.org for more information and to find collection points nearest to you.

Email us your thoughts on e-waste at [email protected]