Circular Economy

Through job creation and economic development, AST Recycling aims to create a network of larger and smaller businesses to contribute to the e-waste circular economy.

South African industry has been tasked with ensuring a just and green transition to an environmentally clean future. One important aspect of this is the circular economy, in which products and materials aren’t simply disposed of, or even recycled, but are reused and repurposed to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill.

An extremely important aspect of this is e-waste recycling, as IT waste contains potentially hazardous components and recycling companies need to follow global compliance standards to ensure that these are not leached into the environment. At the same time, there are many parts of IT equipment that can be reused, but the recycling company must have the expertise to do so.

In addition, the complexity of the e-waste situation in South Africa is compounded by the fact that local and global corporates will “donate” their old equipment to beneficiaries in Africa, without a requirement to safely dispose of hazardous materials.

“The informal recycling sector is not trained and do not have the skillsets and knowledge to do the job according to globally accepted best practice, which leads to the cherry-picking of valuable components and the dumping of low-cost or zero-cost fractions,” says Malcolm Whitehouse, the general manager of AST Recycling.

He says that a misconception about the value of the precious metal content of e-waste is the driving force behind the informal sector, with many people trying to make money out of the platinum group metals contained in the waste. “But they don’t understand the complexity of the big picture – that a device is made up of many different components that need to be recovered and recycled by specialist recyclers downstream. This results in the low- or zero-cost fractions or components being dumped and left to decompose, with the harmful components leaching into groundwater.”

At the same time, the South African government has adopted a precautionary principle approach to the classification of e-waste, stating that it is all hazardous. Whitehouse points out that this is definitely not the case, as long as the waste is managed in a formal manner that is controlled and dictated either by ISO, or R2 or similarly accepted standards. If this level of compliance is introduced, then e-waste is a significant contributor to the circular economy.

“The circular economy addresses the need to reuse materials, moving away from the linear economy where devices are dumped at their end of life. The circular economy attempts to extract maximum value from the device, depending of course on the type and age of the device.”

AST Recycling has adopted an approach of engaging with government on a regular basis to ensure that it understands the requirements from government related to legislative framework and is able to push back where necessary when there are barriers to entry for more formalised solutions in the market. They have also established relationships with the informal sector, not just in South Africa, but in many other countries in Africa as well.

Whitehouse explains: “Through our enterprise development programme, we have entered into strategic partnerships with a number of smaller companies and are looking at facilitating the set-up of a national network in South Africa. We assess those who are able to do the job to a certain standard, but may not have the certification, train them and we ensure that their work meets the standard. In doing so, we mentor that company and give them all the work they require, and provide them with an offtake for their valuable fractions. We send these overseas for final treatment, while all the other components get repurposed and sold locally.”

AST Recycling is also engaging with other larger players in the space in South Africa, exploring the idea of joint ventures. Malcolm says that this is because he believes that no recycler in South Africa can, in its own capacity, be sustained successfully.

“We need the symbiosis. Our collective expertise can make it work through enterprise development and job creation, as long as we’ve put in the footprint to be nationally compliant – doing the job, but working to the correct standards. And this network wouldn’t be limited to South Africa. With a base in South Africa and another in Kenya, we can cover all of Southern Africa. And we’re continuing to look for partnerships across the continent.”

Malcolm says that he would like to get to a point where benefits can be leveraged off synergies like these, in South Africa and the rest of Africa, because the biggest costs for recycling businesses are the costs of set-up and the costs of compliance. “If we could get to a point where the developed world would fund that, it would be great, because they are currently using Africa as a dustbin. Access to a highly skilled specialist European network of experts, coupled to a strong, expert and knowledgeable local skills set, we are able to bring a truly African solution to an African problem, which is on par with all global best practice. ”

In addition to providing refurbished IT equipment, AST Recycling is also looking to a future where they could become a fully fledged Tier 1 recycler, recovering precious metals extracted locally from e-waste in line with the government’s requirement for local beneficiation.

“Clients often want to be seen to be donating IT equipment as part of their CSI initiatives, but they often make mistakes around compliance with legislation. We offer managed and controlled donations services to our clients where required, and in so doing  we close the loop, providing a full ‘chain of custody’ documentation on what has been done with the equipment throughout the lifecycle of the device and the service given to the client. These donations are also subject to the donated equipment coming back to AST Recycling for recycling at the end of life. This gives the donor company the advantage of them being able to support and grow the small businesses in our network, which they can then claim for enterprise development on their B-BBEE scorecards under Corporate Social Investment without physically having to do the job themselves, as AST Recycling takes care of this on their behalf,” Whitehouse concludes. 

Waste Forum
18 September 2020


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