We hear a lot these days about ‘circular economies’. The concept is particularly relevant in the electronics industry by virtue of its global, increasingly pervasive nature. By the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s definition, “In a circular economy, economic activity builds and rebuilds overall system health. The concept recognises the importance of the economy needing to work effectively at all scales – for large and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally. Transitioning to a circular economy does not only amount to adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the linear economy. Rather, it represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities and provides environmental and societal benefits.”
Focusing on that last part, the societal benefits of electronics are innumerable and profound, but the environmental aspect has to be addressed with more determination in order to close the circle. Unsurprisingly, the electronics sector is becoming a bigger and bigger contributor to total global greenhouse gas emissions as electronics become more pervasive in our daily lives.
To plot a course towards a sustainable circular economy for electronics, the Circular Electronics Partnership, or CEP (http://cep2030.org/) was recently formed. Together with over 80 experts from 40 companies, it has sketched a roadmap from now until 2030. The proposed roadmap is divided into six pathways, one of which, named ‘Design for circularity’, seeks to define circular electronic products and services, and to develop and roll out an education programme and tools for circular electronics design.
One of the primary areas where the world is falling short in terms of achieving these goals is waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), more commonly referred to as e-waste. Here are some headline figures from CEP: People are producing 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste annually. It is estimated there are at least 100 million old devices in homes. 80% of e-waste is not collected for recycling, with 76% not documented and 4% thrown into household waste. At the current rate we will produce 120 million tonnes of e-waste annually by 2050.
From a local perspective, eWASA (the e-Waste Association of South Africa) presented a report in 2017 which estimated the total volume of locally generated e-waste in 2015 at 74 923 tonnes, or 6,6 kg per person. As you would expect, the greatest concentration (nearly half) of e-waste produced was in Gauteng, followed by the Western Cape and Mpumalanga, and recycling centres are similarly geographically concentrated.
Therefore, if you’re living in one of the country’s main metropolitan areas, there’s probably a recycling centre nearby. But the open question is, how many people actually use them? As per the aforementioned eWASA report, recycling of WEEE generated in South Africa remained low at only 11%, while the more recent Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report put collection and recycling rates in Africa at a miniscule 0,9%, versus the global average of 17,4%.
The plain truth is that, as with common things like paper, plastic and glass, some people are conscientious recyclers, some just don’t care and some (I would imagine the majority) are happy to recycle as long as it’s not too much of a hassle.
Until we have many more recycling points and, ideally, weekly pickups like we do with paper recycling, most South Africans are probably just not going to bother. An effective strategy requires government to get behind it, not just in terms of implementation but importantly for public messaging, before e-waste recycling goes mainstream in SA – and quite frankly the country has much bigger problems to deal with right now. For the time being, the very notion is as ephemeral as circles in the sand.
Brett van den Bosch
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