Creating a circular economy of waste.

There’s little doubt that 4IR is bringing massive benefits to the planet. It is in the process of improving industrial processes, mitigating our impact on the environment, and enhancing our quality of life. But in order for the technology that forms part of 4IR to be beneficial in the long term, it has to be sustainable too.

4IR depends on and promotes the use of numerous technological devices. The smartphone industry, for example, compels customers to upgrade their devices every two years or so. But what happens to the older devices once they’ve been discarded? Every year, the world produces approximately 50 million tonnes of waste in electrical and electronic equipment, or e-waste. This waste weighs more than all of the commercial aeroplanes ever produced, and only 20% of it is formally recycled.

If 4IR is truly going to be part of the solution to our global environmental, economic and social challenges, rather than part of the problem, it needs to be positioning itself within a circular economy of waste.


“A circular economy is an economic system that tries to eliminate biological and technical waste,” says Katharina Gihring, project manager at UJ’s Process Energy and Environmental Technology Station (PEETS). “It involves re-evaluating how we design our products, and how we understand the ownership models of these products. Do we need to own everything we need? Or could we lease them instead?”

Recycling – an age-old buzzword – is no longer the way to go. We need to prolong the lifecycles of products that are still fit for use by maintaining, reusing, redistributing and refurbishing them and, only as a last resort, dismantling them to extract valuable materials that can be redirected into the system.


“One of the main challenges of creating a circular economy comes in making it socially right,” explains Katharina. “We need to develop systems where people can still gain employment and economic security, while helping to deal with waste in a way that is both ethically and environmentally sound.”

South Africa has an emerging informal sector working in e-waste, but these reclaimers have to sell the waste they source to a middleman, which reduces their earning potential. Complying with legislation is also a major problem. “PEETS has therefore applied for funding to create co-working spaces that will give the informal sector access to the equipment they need in an environment that operates in line with formal sector legislation,” says Katharina.

The co-working spaces grant entrepreneurs the opportunity to rent out an area to dismantle and even partly process the metals they are interested in selling. “In South Africa, our aim is to direct e-waste streams towards these entrepreneurs,” she says. PEETS is working with the Southern African E-Waste Alliance, EMPA at ETH Zurich and the World Resources Forum to make this a reality.

Creating a sustainable world is a complex and multifaceted endeavour. In the 4IR era, it involves being aware of the entire lifecycle of the technology on which we depend, while being aware of the ways in which it can improve people’s lives both economically and socially.