The E-Waste Armageddon

The 1998 movie, “Armageddon”, depicted an asteroid, the size of Texas, on a trajectory bound for earth, which spelt impending doom for the planet. A big ball of rock and gas, hurtling towards the third rock from the sun meant the end of all mankind. If we were to continue with this analogy and replace the big ball of rock and gas with waste, particularly electronic waste, we’d find a similar end result. The major difference being, it’s not coming from outer space, it’s already here.

Yes, this may appear outlandish with an impact not as definitive as the asteroid, but in reality, electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world with a record of 53.6 million tonnes (Mt) being produced globally in 2019, according to the UN’s Global E-waste monitor 2020. This is an alarming figure, seeing an increase of 21% in only five years. At this rate of increase, we could conservatively expect to find e-waste levels at approximately 80 million tonnes per annum in the year 2029, ceteris paribus. When you consider the rapid innovation in technology and the rollout of 5G and IOT globally, this figure is then compounded.

What is the big problem with e-waste, you may ask?

The challenge isn’t the waste itself, more so, how it’s dealt with and what should be done with an electronic device when it reaches the end of its life. A 2019 article by Bloomberg cites Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana as one of the most hazardous landfill sites in the world, due to first world countries using it as a dumping ground for the e-waste. Informal recyclers then risk their health, sorting through the e-waste to gain any value to make a living, then proceeding to burn anything deemed invaluable, resulting in respiratory problems, chronic nausea, and debilitating headaches from the air pollution alone.

Corporates in South Africa have a responsibility to ensure that they put in to place the appropriate policies and processes for the proper management and disposal of their electronic devices when it reaches the end of life. The National Environmental Management: Waste Act, stipulates that if organisations are found to have not adhered to adequate disposal processes and their devices are found on a landfill and can be traced back to the organisation via the serial number, that organisation could be liable for a R10,000,000.00 fine or up to 10 years in prison, in an attempt to ensure proper disposal of this waste stream.

In the movie, it took 14 brave souls traveling to the asteroid on two space shuttles to prevent an Armageddon, however, in reality, it will take every one of us. For companies in South Africa, the key is to find a compliant partner to deal with to ensure that every effort is made to contribute to the circular economy and ultimately prevent electronic devices from ending up in landfills, in South Africa, as well as the continent of Africa.
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