Electronic waste – The toxic legacy of our digital age

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04 Dec 2019

Rapid innovation and decreasing production costs have dramatically increased our access to electronic products and digital technology and, together with humankind’s unquenchable demand for electronic devices, the unintended consequence of this is the worlds fastest-growing waste stream: electronic and electrical waste, or “e-waste”.

The widely accepted definition of e-waste is “anything that runs on electricity”. Electrical and electronic equipment (“EEE”) is anything that contains circuitry or electrical components with either a battery or power supply. EEE covers a wide range of items, including toasters, smoke alarms, monitors, telephones and mobile phones, electrical toothbrushes, coffeemakers, irons, electrical toys, ovens, TVs and computers, internet routers, printers, fridges, microwave ovens and washing machines. Some less obvious items include spent fluorescent tubes, light emitting diode (“LED”) bulbs, batteries and battery-operated toys.

E-waste is problematic largely due to the toxicity of some of the substances that make up the components of the device, which if handled and discarded improperly, can be harmful to human health and cause significant pollution and environmental degradation. This toxicity, coupled with the complexity of the chemical composition of each item makes recycling difficult.

However, e-waste is valuable as a source of secondary raw material and presents an opportunity for economic benefit.

The World Economic Forum states that:

“If ocean plastic pollution was one of the major environmental challenges we finally woke up to in 2018, the ebb and flow of public opinion could and should turn to electronic waste in 2019. The numbers are astounding; 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year, and left unchecked this could more than double to 120 million tonnes by 2050”.

Considering the potentially disastrous effects of the improper handling and disposal of e-waste, and the possible benefits that may be obtained through the reuse, recovery and recycling of e-waste, we must implement change toward the adoption of an e-waste economy.

Some statistics on e-waste

As stated above, e-waste is the most rapidly growing global waste problem.

A study conducted by the United Nations found that in 2012, an estimated 56.56 million tonnes of EEE were put on the global market. When reaching its end-of-life, this equipment becomes e-waste.

An internationally adopted measuring framework developed by the Partnership on Measuring ICT (information and communication technology) for Development estimates the total amount of e-waste generated in 2014 was 41.8 million metric tonnes (Mt), which was forecast to increase to 50 million Mt in 2018.

Such a quantity is hard to imagine, yet this is equivalent in weight to all the commercial aircraft we have ever built throughout history, or 4,500 Eiffel Towers, and that’s just one year’s worth of the e-waste we create.

While there are no exact figures available, in South Africa the Department of Environmental Affairs believes that e-waste makes up 5% to 8% of municipal solid waste and is growing at a rate three times faster than any other form of waste. According to the e-Waste Association of South Africa, South Africa generates about 6.2 kilograms of e-waste per inhabitant annually and only 12% of that is recycled.

The circumstances are not aided by the fact that only 20% of global e-waste is formally recycled. The remaining 80% is often incinerated or discarded in a landfill. Many thousands of tonnes are also transported to poor, developing countries to be dismantled by hand or burned by the world’s poorest informal workers. This crude form of “urban mining” has consequences for human health and creates immense environmental pollution.

E-waste is Hazardous Waste

The National Environmental Management: Waste Act No. 59 of 2008 (as amended) (“the Waste Act”) defines ‘‘hazardous waste’’ as “any waste that contains organic or inorganic elements or compounds that may, owing to the inherent physical, chemical or toxicological characteristics of that waste, have a detrimental impact on health and the environment and includes hazardous substances, materials or objects within business waste, […]”.

Considering the above definition, it is confirmed that the potentially toxic or harmful components of e-waste amount to hazardous waste and, as such, must be handled, stored, transported and disposed of in accordance with national legislation and published guidelines, which are to be discussed below.

Some examples of these toxic or harmful components, amongst many others, include:

  • Mercury – one of the most toxic yet widely used metals in the production of EEE. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that bioaccumulates in the body, causing brain and liver damage if ingested or inhaled. Mercury is used in batteries, thermostats and fluorescent lamps.
  • Lead – commonly used in the EEE industry in such components as solder, lead-acid batteries, electronic components, cable sheathing and in the glass of cathode-ray tubes, for example. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, convulsions, coma or even death. Continued excessive exposure, as in an industrial setting, can affect the kidneys.
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (“CFCs”) – compounds composed of carbon, fluorine, chlorine and sometimes hydrogen. Used mainly in cooling units and insulation foam, it has been phased out because when released into the atmosphere, it accumulates in the stratosphere and has a harmful effect on the ozone layer, which results in an increased incidence of skin cancer in humans and in genetic damage to many other organisms.

The harmful effects of the improper treatment and disposal of e-waste

While we may not consider a redundant piece of technology to be hazardous, it is the components that make up the item that are considered hazardous. If not properly disposed of, these substances can have extremely harmful effects on both human health and the environment.

Human Health

E-waste contains several hundred different substances such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium and flame retardants that create dioxin emissions when burned. Overall, human health risks from e-waste include breathing difficulties, respiratory irritation, coughing, choking, pneumonitis, tremors, neuropsychiatric problems, convulsions, coma and even death.

Informal waste collectors at landfill sites, e-waste workers and local residents may be exposed to these dangerous substances through inhalation, skin exposure and oral ingestion. Inhalation of contaminated dust imposes a range of potential occupational health hazards including silicosis.

E-waste workers are also exposed to other hazards leading to physical injuries such as electrical shock, and chronic ailments such as asthma, skin diseases, eye irritations and stomach disease.

The Environment

The improper handling and disposal of e-waste can have significant, irreversible effects on the environment, such as the pollution and degradation of air and water quality and soil contamination.

Air Quality

Informal waste collectors burn the e-waste in order to abstract the metals, such as copper. The contaminants produced by the burning of e-waste has significantly contributed to high levels of the air pollution.

Water Quality

When EEE containing heavy metals such as lead, barium, mercury, lithium (found in mobile phones and computer batteries) are improperly disposed of, these heavy metals leach out of the item and into the soil. This leachate often reaches groundwater channels and other water courses, polluting several thousands of litres of water. These heavy metals make the water toxic and unusable for the communities, animals and plants that rely on them.

Soil Contamination

As described above, improperly disposed of toxic heavy metals and chemicals from e-waste can enter the soil as leachate. These chemicals are not biodegradable; they can persist in the environment for long periods of time, increasing the risk of exposure to human and animals.

E-waste has an adverse impact on the “Soil-Crop-Food Pathway”. Essentially, when crops grow in soil that has been contaminated by heavy metals, the crops and the food they provide are also contaminated. This can cause illness for humans and animals and restricts viable farmland for clean food production.

The benefits of treating e-waste in terms of the 3 R’s (Reuse, Recover, Recycle)

The World Economic Forum states that the “economic arguments are strong. If we look at the material value of our spent devices, globally this amounts to $62.5 billion, three times more than the annual output of the world’s silver mines […]. More than 120 countries have an annual GDP lower than the value of our growing pile of global e-waste”.

Considering the numerous harmful impacts associated with the improper treatment and disposal of e-waste, it is essential that e-waste is directed away from disposal and toward its beneficial reuse, recovery and recycling.

Not only is it better for the environment, but the reuse, recovery and recycling of e-waste has several economic benefits.

EEE that is still operational but unwanted can be repaired, or the components can be repurposed and reused. Extending the life of EEE and re-using electrical components is economically beneficial as working devices are worth more than the materials they contain. A circular electronics system, or “e-cycling”, is a system in which resources are not extracted, used and wasted, but reused in multiple ways.

E-cycling creates jobs, retains more value in the industry and the repaired electronics gives people access to low-cost technology.

E-waste is also extremely valuable as a rich source of secondary raw material. From every 1 million recycled mobile phones approximately 16,000 kilograms of copper, 350 kilograms of silver, 34 kilograms of gold and 15 kilograms of palladium can be recovered.

These valuable components can be reintroduced back into the production of new EEE, rather than mining for new raw materials, causing significant environmental degradation and depleting scarce natural resources.

Additionally, by harvesting this valuable resource, substantially less carbon dioxide emissions are generated when compared to mining for new raw minerals.

Moreover, by increasing the percentage of e-waste directed toward reuse, recovery and recycling more resources will be available to increase investment in appropriate technologies for more innovative and cost-effective methods of recycling, employment opportunities can be created, and it will contribute to the growth of South Africa’s growing waste economy.

An added benefit of the proper disposal of e-waste is data destruction. The physical destruction of data holding hardware is one of the most secure methods of data destruction as it destroys the memory which means that it is almost impossible to access.

The legal requirements for the disposal of e-waste

Considering both the possible harm and benefits associated with e-waste, it is clear that e-waste should be handled, treated and disposed of in a responsible manner. The handling, treatment and disposal of e-waste must also be legally compliant.

While there are several statutes that may apply to the handling, treatment and disposal of e-waste, for present purposes we refer specifically to the Waste Act.

Section 16 of the Waste Act creates a general duty of care in respect of waste management, providing that:

A holder of waste must, within the holder’s power, take all reasonable measures to-

  1. avoid the generation of waste of waste and where such generation cannot be avoided, to minimise the toxicity and amounts of waste that are generated;
  2. reduce, reuse, recycle and recover waste;
  3. where waste must be disposed of, ensure that the waste is treated and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner;
  4. manage the waste in such a manner that it does not endanger health or the environment or cause a nuisance through noise, odour or visual impacts;
  5. prevent any employee or any person under his or her supervision from contravening this Act; and
  6. prevent the waste from being used for any unauthorised purpose. (emphasis added)

Section 16(2) provides that “[a]ny person who sells a product that may be used by the public and that is likely to result in the generation of hazardous waste must take reasonable steps to inform the public of the impact of that waste on health and the environment”.

While section 16 creates a general duty of care in respect of waste management, the storage, reuse, recycling or recovery, treatment and disposal of e-waste must be conducted in terms of the “List of Waste Management Activities that Have, or are Likely to Have, a Detrimental Effect on the Environment” (GN.921 of 29 November 2013) (as amended) (“the List”).

Where the waste management activity meets the specific technical qualifications provided in the List, such as the process, volume, area and type of waste (general or hazardous), either a waste management licence is required or the person wishing to commence, undertake or conduct a waste management activity must comply with the following relevant norms or standards:

  1. Norms and Standards for Storage of Waste, 2013; or
  2. National Norms and Standards for the Sorting, Shredding, Grinding, Crushing, Screening or Baling of General Waste, 2017.

In addition to the above listed norms or standards, any disposal of e-waste to landfill must be in terms of the “Waste Classification and Management Regulations, 2013” (GNR.634 of 23 August 2013), read with “National Norms and Standards for Disposal of Waste to Landfill” (GNR.636 of 23 August 2013), the “National Norms and Standards for the Assessment of Waste for Landfill Disposal” (GNR.635 of 23 August 2013) and the “Minimum Requirements for the Handling, Classification and Disposal of Hazardous Waste” (Department of Water Affairs & Forestry, 1998. Waste Management Series).

Waste assessed in terms of the Waste Act, the Norms and Standards for Assessment of Waste for Landfill Disposal and the Minimum Requirements for the Handling, Classification and Disposal of Hazardous Waste must be disposed of in terms of the provisions of the National Norms and Standards for Disposal of Waste to Landfill.

Currently, e-waste may only be disposed of to legally compliant landfills that are designed and authorised to accept hazardous waste.

Most significantly, the National Norms and Standards for Disposal of Waste to Landfill has, in terms of section 5, prohibited specific types of wastes from being disposed to landfill.

“Hazardous Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment” (lamps) and “Lead Acid Batteries” have been prohibited from being disposed to landfill since August 2016 and “Hazardous Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment” (other) will be prohibited from being disposed to landfill from August 2021.

Consequently, fluorescent lamps and lead acid batteries are prohibited from being disposed to landfill and as of August 2021 all other e-waste will be prohibited from landfill disposal.

Ethical responsibility – e-waste collectors make it easy for us
In light of the above, it is vital that we implement measures to ensure that our e-waste be redirected away from landfill disposal and toward the beneficial reuse, recovery and recycling thereof.

The e-Waste Association of South Africa (“eWASA”) was established in 2008 to manage the establishment of a sustainable environmentally sound e-waste management system for the country. Together with eWASA, several e-waste collectors are making the responsible treatment and disposal of our e-waste easier for us.

E-waste collectors offer services such as the collection of e-waste from homes and offices (often free of charge), data destruction and the responsible reuse, recovery or recycling of same. Some examples of e-waste collectors include DESCO Electronic Recyclers, Interwaste, and SIMS Recycling Solutions.

Considering the ease of access to responsible e-waste treatment and disposal facilities, it is important for us, as the creators of e-waste, to ensure that we avoid leaving a toxic legacy for future generations.

Should you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact us. Our Environmental department will be happy to assist with any questions or concerns you may have.

See also:

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)
Pascale de Froberville

Pascale is an associate in the Environmental and Sustainable Development department at Eversheds Sutherland KZN. Pascale specialises in environmental legal compliance, ISO 14001:2015 environmental management systems, auditing, sustainable development, land... Read more about Pascale de Froberville


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