Electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) refers to devices and machines that use electric currents or electromagnetic fields to function. From the discovery of electricity to the rise of consumer electronics, EEE has become an integral part of everyday life.
Humans use electrical equipment, such as motors, fans, and transformers, to convert electricity into heat, light, sound, and kinetic energy. We use electronic components, such as transistors, LEDs, and capacitors, to control the flow of electrons in information-processing systems. Batteries, wiring, switches, and electric or electromagnetic measuring instruments also fall under the EEE umbrella.
Electrical and Electronic Equipment typically contains toxic substances that pose an environmental threat when sent to landfills. While the global war on e-waste aims to reduce how much EEE ends up in landfills, it often fails to consider the impact of purpose-built electronic packaging materials.
Types of Packaging Typically Used for EEE Products
Electronics and electrical devices are fragile and often expensive, so most manufacturers and distributors use protective packaging materials to prevent breakages and financial losses. Consumer electronics such as cell phones are often double-boxed to secure the product and absorb shock during transit. Tiny electronic components like microchips typically require engineered packaging solutions to prevent breakages.
Cardboard and Paper
Cardboard boxes protect electrical and electronic equipment throughout the value chain, from mass manufacturer exports to customer order fulfilment on e-commerce sites. Distributors also use paper and cardboard as packaging inserts, shredded void fills, and for printed instructions and warranty information. Cardboard typically forms the outer packaging layer that protects products from dust and makes shipments easier to lift and stack, preventing mishandling that could cause damage.
While paper packaging is 100% recyclable, it often becomes contaminated with plastic box tape, staples, and glue which affects its recyclability.
Polystyrene is a polymer made from styrene – a compound derived from petroleum. Although there are many varieties, expanded polystyrene foam has the most applications in packaging, including moulded inserts and packing peanuts. The material contains only 4% polystyrene and is 96% air, making it extremely lightweight and cost-effective. Although polystyrene is easy to break, it is strong in compression and provides excellent cushioning and shock absorption for fragile goods.
Polystyrene has a bad reputation and is one of the most misunderstood plastics, however, the material is 100% recyclable. South Africa has a large end market for recycled polystyrene, which various local companies currently use to produce cornices, skirting boards, picture frames, and construction materials.
Plastic Sleeves and Bags
Distributors often place small electrical devices and electronics in individual plastic coverings within a larger box as the final layer of protection against scratches, dust, and moisture. Many electronic components, such as fuses and circuit breakers, require anti-static packaging to protect them from electrostatic discharge (ESD), which can damage the electronics.
Manufacturers use treated PET, LDPE, and other plastics to produce anti-static bags, pouches, film, and bubble wrap for electronics. Some anti-static packaging contains conductive metals, typically aluminium, to shield electronics from static discharge.
Most plastics we use for packaging are recyclable, however, many of them end up in landfills due to ineffective or non-existent packaging recovery systems.
Managing Packaging in the EEE Industry
Separation at the source
Separating recyclable materials from general waste may be the key to diverting EEE packaging away from landfills. Although various municipal separation at source programmes exist in South Africa, many studies have found that consumers are often reluctant to participate in such programmes.
Despite this reluctance, the country has a relatively high recycling rate. The Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) suggests the nation recycles 70% of its paper and board, while Plastics SA reports a 46% plastic recycling rate. This data likely reflects the activities of informal waste pickers aka reclaimers who separate recyclables and divert them away from landfills.
Integrating informal reclaimers into formal waste management systems creates more opportunities for recycling. Consumers can simply place recyclable packaging materials into separate, clear plastic bags alongside their municipal rubbish bins for waste pickers to collect. Allowing reclaimers to access recyclables from gated communities and estates would also increase the overall recycling rate for packaging and other materials.
Green packaging design
Green design refers to designing a product with the least environmental impact possible without affecting its functionality. Using recycled materials to produce packaging is one such approach that helps build an end market for recycled goods while conserving natural resources. Using right-weighting strategies to reduce the amount of material in packaging design is another practical way to mitigate the waste the industry generates.
Many companies use biodegradable or compostable materials to produce eco-friendly packaging. While this approach may sound appealing, eWASA packaging executive Adri Spangenberg warns that “biodegradable packaging is not a solution in South Africa”. Spangenberg notes that the country currently has no commercial composting facilities, making proper disposal of bio-plastics and plant-based packaging almost impossible.
Furthermore, plant-based packaging may have a larger carbon footprint than traditional materials when you consider its contribution to deforestation. It also contaminates the already established plastics recycling. South African businesses typically import these materials, creating further carbon emissions.
Manufacturers should conduct thorough life-cycle assessments for their packaging products before adopting novel materials that may not work locally. Coupling materials that are already widely recycled with designs that minimise waste is a more realistic way to tackle the packaging problem.
Take-back programmes for EEE and packaging
South Africa’s EPR regulations require manufacturers and distributors of packaging materials to take responsibility for the waste their products generate at the post-consumer stage. Implementing take-back programmes would help packaging industry members comply with the regulations and reduce the volume of waste the country sends to landfills.
Take-back schemes allow the consumer to send the packaging they receive with their electronics or appliances back to the retailer. Retailers and wholesalers send the collected packaging materials to recycling companies that sort, bale, and process them to create new products. Successful take-back programmes require consumer participation and often work best when incentivised with rewards like discounts or store credit.
While some electronics have unique packaging requirements, most EEE manufacturers use commonplace, recyclable materials to protect and package their products. Creating attractive end markets for recycled cardboard, polystyrene, and plastics, designing for recyclability, and implementing national take-back schemes could help reduce the packaging industry’s environmental impact. Increasing our packaging recycling efforts will require cooperation from consumers, private companies, informal recyclers, and municipalities facilitated by the new EPR regulations.
eWASA is a registered Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) for the paper and packaging, Electrical and Electronic Equipment, and lighting industries. We help our members develop and implement collection and recycling schemes for their products to minimise environmental impact and support a circular economy – contact us for more information.
- Interview with Adri Spangenberg, 18 January 2023.