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Opinion Piece: A guide to tackling your company’s e-waste challenges

By Raeford Liebenberg, Manager at Silver Moon IT, a Galix company

In our digital age, electronic devices are pervasive, and businesses cannot function without them – from computers to printers and mobile phones to tablets, televisions, and even refrigerators, electronic components are everywhere. This has created a growing problem, as when these devices reach the end of their lifespan, they need to be disposed of correctly, and not simply dumped into an ever-growing electronics graveyard. Responsible electronic waste (e-waste) management is critical and is fast becoming a global imperative as the world strives to reduce its carbon footprint and emissions. Laws were put into place in South Africa to this effect, but many businesses simply do not know where to start. Partnering with a reputable IT service provider can help businesses develop an appropriate e-waste strategy and begin to tackle this challenge and become more responsible and sustainable in the long term.

e-waste is everywhere

The term ‘e-waste’ typically brings to mind computers and phones that are broken or have reached the end of their usable lifespan. The reality though is that it encompasses a whole lot more, and the South African Department of Toxic Substances Control includes televisions, monitors, smart displays, tablets, laptops, printers,  radios and more. Other devices like toner cartridges, LED lighting tubes and globes, televisions, set-top boxes, CD and DVD players, gaming consoles and even newer appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines that have computer chips inside them are also all forms of e-waste.

They cannot simply be disposed of in the regular company rubbish, and many countries, South Africa included, have laws regarding the disposal and recycling of electronic waste. They also often contain hazardous materials, including heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium, which can leech into the soil and water and contaminate the environment. In addition, many electronic devices contain sensitive or personal information, and improper disposal can lead to data breaches, identity theft, and privacy violations, as well as compliance challenges around data privacy legislation such as the Protection of Personal Information Act (PoPIA).

Acting responsibly

Aside from compliance, proper disposal and recycling of e-waste is an important step in improving sustainability. Electronic devices contain valuable materials like gold, silver, copper, and rare earth metals, which can be recovered, reducing the need for new mining and extraction. Manufacturing electronics requires a significant amount of energy, and proper recycling and refurbishment can save energy compared to producing new items, reducing overall emissions. In addition, e-waste management supports a growing industry of recycling and refurbishing electronics, creating jobs and economic opportunities.

In South Africa, very few companies actively practice responsible e-waste recycling, leaving a significant environmental and ethical challenge unaddressed. When a company faces the retirement of electronic equipment, it’s crucial to take proactive steps toward responsible disposal. This may include recycling, refurbishing and selling, or donating it to a school or an organisation that may be able to use it. While some retail chains provide e-waste containers, this is aimed more at consumers and small businesses, as most organisations need a more comprehensive approach and would benefit from using a specialist company that ensures data deletion and appropriate disposal of items.

Three steps on the road to sustainability

Having an e-waste strategy needs to become part and parcel of the sustainability and emissions reduction targets, but knowing where to start can be a challenge. The first step is to have defined policies and procedures around e-waste management, including an agreed lifecycle for all devices and what happens at the end of life – for example, after six years a laptop must be sent for data deletion and then donated to a local school, or if the device is no longer functional, it should be responsibly recycled. This needs to be taken into account by both procurement and IT, fully documented and agreed upon by all relevant parties.

Businesses also need to have a recycling process in place, and not just for IT waste. A holistic waste management and recycling strategy is essential and should incorporate e-waste as well as paper, plastics, lighting and more. The key is to look at the sustainability footprint – the environmental aspect has to be included in policies and procedures, and awareness needs to be driven throughout the organisation.

The next step is to engage with a reputable e-waste disposal organisation that will deal with e-waste in line with defined policies and procedures and will do so responsibly, issuing certificates to confirm procedure has been followed. This is particularly important for IT elements, where the serial number is typically tied to the purchaser, and once it has been recycled or refurbished, this must be changed. In addition, it is important to consider that when you dispose of an item, such as a printer, you should also dispose of related consumables if they will no longer be useful.

Finally, companies need to understand the consequences if devices are not recycled, including how it will impact sustainability, carbon emissions, and the environment. Not only is it important for compliance and protecting personal information, but it is rapidly becoming imperative for conserving the planet. It is everyone’s responsibility to prevent toxic and hazardous chemicals from affecting the earth. The right IT partner can help you develop an appropriate and granular waste management strategy, find a reputable disposal and recycling company, or help repurpose devices by making sure they are delivered to the most appropriate recipient.