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Where Digital Products Do Not End Up In A Wasteland But Find New Life

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Ashley Heather; image by Lydia Harper Photography

E-waste is hazardous, but often not properly tracked or recycled. What’s needed? A more formalized re-use economy and future-thinking brands. 

It seems like everything and anything these days is connected to the internet. From robotic vacuum cleaners to toothbrushes, smart refrigerators, electronic toys and even running shoes, computerized devices embedded with sensors and controllers have become everyday purchases. But as we pursue smarter and sleeker gadgets, we also have to ask how these devices will be discarded. 

Thirty-eight tonnes of e-waste is generated every single minute and by 2021, it’s expected that 57 million tonnes of electronic waste will be produced globally (says the Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report). Compared to the overall amount of rubbish generated – 2,000 million tonnes – this number seems relatively small but when you take into account that e-waste has health and environmental implications, and that it’s often not properly tracked or recycled, it becomes a bigger issue. 

“Even a USB is technically e-waste.”
Giulio Airaga, a digital marketing specialist at Desco Electronic Recyclers

“Anything that runs on electricity or anything that generates electricity is electronic waste,” explains Giulio Airaga, a digital marketing specialist at Desco Electronic Recyclers. “Even a USB is technically e-waste. Why? Because inside there’s a circuit board and on it, a concentration of metals… sometimes a little bit of gold, a little bit of silver – it’s traces, so finite, but it’s something.” 

Many African countries do not have formal e-waste solutions in place but because of the Basel Convention (which dictates that hazardous waste cannot be moved between nations), e-waste recycling companies are also not allowed to import discarded electronics. They can, however, accept pre-processed, stripped down e-waste, something Desco Electronic Recyclers does with Namibia, Swaziland, Gabon, Botswana and Mozambique. 

“The reason for the Basel Convention is that overseas countries are using Africa as a dumping ground. There are some products, like printers, that we get that there is no solution for and we have to send it to a hazardous landfill at our own cost. Most European countries have recycling centers, and they have e-waste companies, but they want to receive ‘good’ e-waste – the recyclables you can get an income from that don’t fill up the landfills,” says Airaga. “Dumping e-waste is illegal but many people don’t realize that. The highest recovery item is a circuit board and a lot of informal recyclers (and sometimes formalized recyclers) without standards in place, cherry-pick the valuables and dump the rest. A smartphone registered in your name with a serial number on can be traced back to you. This could lead to a fine or even jail time. Recyclers need to take the responsibility on themselves to recycle e-waste properly.”

The unregulated disposal of e-waste is a massive problem globally. At least 9.3-million tonnes of e-waste moves between countries and businesses looking for a cheap and easy way to dispose unusable electronics often turn to countries like Ghana, the Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast. Dell was one of the first technology companies to ban exporting e-waste to developing countries, setting up a recycling hub and collection network in Kenya as well as an industry-wide takeback program in Ghana: “When your name is on the company, you have to take responsibility for the way you impact society. The founder of Dell’s pet hate was that he could potentially walk past a landfill and see his name on the items inside…” explains Chris Buchanan, Dell’s director of end user computing for Africa. “One of the challenges when you build product is the full cycle of the components and making sure that they all can potentially be recycled again.”

“One of the challenges when you build product is the full cycle of the components and making sure that they all can potentially be recycled again.”
Chris Buchanan, Dell’s director of end user computing for Africa

Samsung’s e-waste strategy shifted dramatically in 2017 when the South Korean technology giant decided to make e-waste a part of a R25 million ($) enterprise development program: “As part of the president’s Good Green Deeds campaign, we found two entities – alongside the DTI – with the goal of building up their businesses until they own a beneficiation plant… the full value chain of e-waste,” explains Hlubi Shivanda, Samsung South Africa’s director: business innovation group and corporate affairs. 

Located in Benoni, Johannesburg, iLanga E-Waste Management is one of the small businesses Samsung is working with: “The company was registered in 2016 and we started operating in 2018 through the help of the funds we received,” explains Maria Rakgalakane, iLanga E-Waste Management’s director. “We managed to pay a warehouse rental deposit, we acquired two trucks, office equipment and then we also acquired the operating licence – it was so expensive. I’ve found that people don’t value recycling. We have to teach them that e-waste can be hazardous. If they want to plant a crop, it won’t grow. It damages the soil.”

Over and above ramping up these small businesses, Samsung’s role is to ensure enough e-waste gets to these companies to recycle. Working closely with the government means access to old devices sitting in state warehouses across the country. “Municipalities and government departments also need to dispose of their waste responsibly. This is an opportunity for these entities to act as a conduit to dispose of this waste. From a government perspective, we’ll be able to unlock the volume,” adds Shivanda.

What’s interesting is that older electronics can be more lucrative as the concentration of precious metals found is often dependent on the age of the device which is why tapping into discarded government electronics could be a goldmine for these upcoming e-waste entrepreneurs. As the life cycle of electronic devices shortens and our requirements for newer, smarter and better gadgets grows, so does the need for e-waste recycling. A more formalized re-use economy is emerging and future-thinking technology brands like Dell are now designing with sustainability in mind. 

“We move a lot of devices around the planet on a daily basis. The real challenge in this whole circular economy is actually on our supply chain. Our traditional suppliers are having to change a lot of their manufacturing capabilities… to make sure that we can honor our commitment to the circular economy,” says Buchanan. 

‘There is more gold in a tonne of PC motherboards’

Gold is the most valuable component of e-waste. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) journal, a circuit board can contain around 60 different chemical elements from nickel to palladium and copper: “There is more gold in a tonne of PC motherboards than there is in the digital gold or that they’re taking out of the ground,” explains Buchanan. 

But where do recycled metals and minerals go? For Ashley Heather, a jeweler in Cape Town, sustainable, single-sourced gold and silver recovered from e-waste made perfect sense. “We started off creating jewelry in silver reclaimed from used photographic chemicals but as dark room photography is a bit of a dying art, sourcing these became increasingly difficult,” explains Heather. “We buy end of life electronics from e-waste aggregators but also take donations of people’s broken personal electronics. This is all manually dismantled, the non-electrical components are sent their separate ways for recycling and the electrical components are shredded. This shredded material heads to the refinery where the precious metals are extracted and purified before heading to the studio to be crafted into jewelry.”

Heather considers herself an advocate for sustainability first and a goldsmith second. She believes ethical sourcing – fairtrade, recycling or repurposing – is the future of jewelry. 

“I think global crises also serve as catalysts for re-imagining the way we do many things. Covid-19 has shone the light on the fragility of the fast fashion model.”

By Tiana Cline

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