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ENVIRONMENT-SOUTH AFRICA: Opportunities Spring From e-Waste

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Oct 6 2009 (IPS) - There was an audible gasp when Kirsten McIntyre told the audience that e-waste is the third fastest growing waste stream in the world, with between 40 and 50 million tons of computers, TVs and washing machines being "thrown away" each year.

Phumlani Silwana: 'I save most of my salary so that I can study computer technology.' Credit:  JustPCs

Phumlani Silwana: 'I save most of my salary so that I can study computer technology.' Credit: JustPCs

The event was the Life Cycle Management Conference, which took place last month in Cape Town. McIntyre is the environmental compliance manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa at the multinational technology company Hewlett Packard.

Huge amounts of these defunct appliances find their way to African countries. Often Western corporations that want to get rid of their useless computers will ship them off to Africa. This happens under the pretence that the equipment is suitable for re-use. But in most cases these products end up on landfill sites, adding to Africa's waste problem.

The problem is so huge that the United Nations in 2007 launched a global campaign aimed at setting standards for recycling and disposing of e-waste.

South Africa is thankfully not one of the target dumping sites of the world. However, there are many individuals who are who are stripping computers and other e-waste products without care for their own long-term health or care for the environment.

"The smelting takes place in the open air, which is not good for the environment or people as toxic gases are released," explained McIntyre. Smelting refers to a process where the relevant parts are heated over an open fire to extract metals.

She pointed out that properly planned waste management projects can lead to the greater utilisation of materials and the creation of jobs that pay well above one dollar a day.

South Africa produces 100,000 tons of e-waste annually. But a number of organisations countrywide are working to try and salvage whatever they can. Computers are recyclable, after all.

"There are many advantages to saving computers from ending up in landfill sites," Susanne Dittke, founder of Envirosense, a company working to find integrated resource and waste management solutions, tells IPS.

"There are social, economic and environmental advantages. If projects are well run, they generate income for a certain group of people which has a number of social benefits.

"Environmental benefits include managing the release of poisonous gases. When a computer lands in a landfill, it leaches cadmium, mercury, lead and other metals into the ground, which inevitably end up in water sources."

Informal scrap collectors and dealers break computers in order to easily retrieve the copper inside. This is extremely dangerous as hazardous gases are released. The broken parts are left behind, which result in litter.

Dittke is spearheading a Western Cape project where a number of people with different skills create different e-waste opportunities. One of the most successful of these projects is run by JustPCs, a company founded by Justin van der Walt.

This computer whizz lost the use of an arm in an accident when he was 16 years old. He struggled to find work and decided to create his own company.

Old computers are either donated by or bought from corporations around the Cape Town area. "Our aim is to refurbish computers and put them back into circulation," enthuses Van der Walt.

"In some cases the corporations that give us the computers will donate the product to non-governmental organisations or schools after we have refurbished it. Sometimes we sell the refurbished computers elsewhere. If a computer is beyond repair, we sell it off to others who extract the motherboards, copper and aluminium to make other products.

"Some people make jewellery, including rings and belts, from the aluminium rings. There is also a project where the motherboards are used to make clocks."

At JustPCs a monthly average of 150 computers are refurbished or sold on for the extraction of different components in a sustainable way. JustPCs’s disposal of computers is monitored by the e-Waste Association of South Africa, of which it is a member, and it has also been accredited as an authorised refurbisher by Microsoft.

Van der Walt employs people from disadvantaged communities. The 23-year-old Phumlani Silwana finished school two years ago and has been working for JustPCs for a year. "My mother is a domestic worker who has to care for five children. I am the oldest and the youngest is only two years old," Silwana tells IPS.

"I wanted to study, but I had no money. I ended up sitting around at home, doing nothing. My mother introduced me to Justin who was willing to take me in when he heard that I had no job."

Silwana says his life has changed dramatically. "I have learnt so much about computers. I can identify and fix problems. I have learnt to understand how computers work."

Before he was offered the job, Silwana had zero income. Today he earns around 200 dollars a month. "I save most of my salary so that I can study computer technology. I use the rest of the money to buy clothes and to pay my mother's utility bills. I also want to help my siblings to further their studies."

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