As the world is assessing the social and economic impact of Covid-19, society is also assessing the Covid-19 impact on the natural environment. Since most industries were closed during the lockdown period with a number of vehicles on the road reduced and aircrafts grounded, several studies have reported improved air quality in a number of countries. However, an increase in medical and single-use plastic wastes, particularly surgical masks, sanitiser bottles and gloves have recently been reported in coastal areas which then end up in oceans. This waste is negatively impacting the environment, particularly for marine life, which may cause suffocation, starvation and entanglement of life forms, thus leading to the death of affected organisms.
In South Africa, one of the challenges raised during the hard lockdown was that thousands of informal waste collectors had to stop working. Whilst this was raised mainly from an economic hardship perspective, it also had an environmental impact. A 2018 report by Plastic South Africa, which is the body that represents the plastic value chain in South Africa, stated that 43.7% of plastic in South Africa is recycled, which is not a bad figure compared to some parts of the world. However, plastics are one part of the waste management problem, in a country with a high penetration of mobile communication devices, the next wave of waste management challenges facing us is e-waste.
South Africa’s waste economy is estimated to be worth R15 billion and employs more than 30 000 people. Over the years legislation has been passed to unlock a market worth billions more through the recycling of metals, plastics, paper, glass, and e-waste. A growing population and economy mean increased volumes of waste which simply sending to landfills is not sustainable in the drive towards a green economy. That is why waste is increasingly being diverted from landfills towards recycling and recovery, creating promising new businesses and much-needed jobs.
Vodacom is aware of the socio-economic conditions that exist within its operating environment and in 2019 articulated its purpose to connect for a better future by focusing on three strategic areas: Digital Society; Inclusion for All and Planet. This in an effort to bridge the digital divide, create inclusive business models and minimise its impact on the environment. The generation of e-waste in particular is a reality for Vodacom, hence the company is actively involved in creating solutions to minimise waste and contribute meaningfully towards the green economy.
“We believe that all role players in business, government and society need to work together to drive responsible waste practices and avoid leaving behind a harmful legacy for future generations to inherit,” says Chief Officer for External Affairs at Vodacom South Africa, Takalani Netshitenzhe. “It is collective action from all that will help to advance progress towards the National Development Plan (NDP) and, in particular, Goal 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which promotes strong partnerships for a better, more inclusive future,” adds Netshitenzhe.
Understanding the problem at hand
E-waste comprises of multiple components, some containing harmful substances, which can have an adverse impact on human health and the environment if not handled properly. The improper handling and disposal of e-waste can leak several heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and lithium into the environment causing pollution and soil contamination, and degrading air and water quality, threatening ecosystems for generations to come. It is therefore concerning that each year approximately 50 million tons of e-waste is produced and only 20% is formally recycled. The remaining 80% is often incinerated or discarded in a landfill, making e-waste the fastest-growing waste stream in the world.
Tackling the challenge of e-waste
With the goal of halving its environmental impact by the year 2025, Vodacom has made great strides in reducing e-waste by extending the useful life of network equipment and mobile devices that are returned from its operations and customers. By testing redundant equipment, the company was able to re-introduce more than 308 tonnes of equipment into regions where it was needed. More than 367 tonnes of batteries were rejuvenated and re-introduced into the network.
In addition, Vodacom has its very own Advanced Repair Centre (ARC) with an extensive network of 37 repair centres across all regions within South Africa, equipped to repair, refurbish, resell or send on to approved recycling agencies. In FY20 more than 316 000 devices were repaired at the ARC and its supportive repair network. Another 11 000 phones were identified for recycling, further strengthening the company’s efforts to operate responsibly and sustain jobs in the recycling economy.
Partnering towards greater success
Vodacom encourages its customers and all consumers to drive responsible practices. In 2019 it partnered with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs most people living in the community of Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga, to migrate all farm workers using 2G feature phones to 3G smart phones. This initiative opened a new world of the internet and technology to farm workers in the area and, as a result, became the first smartphone-only town in the country. By encouraging residents to return their old 2G devices and receive discounts for newer and smarter devices that are 3G and 4G enabled, a total of 500 devices were collected from the community and recycled responsibly.
“We are aware that most people prefer to keep their old devices or pass them down to family and friends. Whilst this encourages re-use, these devices ultimately reach the end of useful life and end up either in drawers or worse at dumps and landfills”, says Netshitenzhe. “We have entered into discussions with the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries and other institutions, to introduce a pilot project in certain parts of the country where customers will be able to return old and unused mobile devices from the comfort and safety of their homes”, adds Netshitenzhe. This project will give customers two options: the option to recycle their device or the option to donate the device to a learner at a Vodacom supported school. Due to the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic, this pilot will be available on Vodacom’s digital platforms and will allow customers to register their old devices, have them picked up from their homes and receive assurance that the device will end up at one of Vodacom’s approved repair centres, where it will be assessed for reuse or recycling.