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EWASTE RECYCLING: “We have successfully developed and are now manufacturing our own recycling technology and machinery”

Exclusive interview with Steffen Schröder, Managing Director, Reclite SA, a waste electrical and electronics equipment (WEEE) recycling and beneficiation company in South Africa. Reclite SA is part of the project pitch session at the upcoming Africa’s Green Economy Summit in Cape Town in February 2024.

Let’s start with some background on you and how Reclite SA started.

Good day. My name is Stefan Schröder. I’m the Managing Director of Reclite and I am proud to explain a little bit about and showcase Reclite SA to you and where we started. We started originally as a lighting lamp recycling company in 2009 with one facility in Johannesburg. Within the first three years, we grew from just lighting lamps to electronic waste, lithium ion batteries, alkaline batteries, solar panels, solar PV modules, and we started recycling them in the entire country. So, today it is a great pleasure for be here and to showcase our company.

What kind of recycling do you do and how big is this industry?

We predominantly recycle electronic waste, specifically the hazardous portion of electronic waste. So of course, electronic waste consists of your laptops, your cell phones, those types of things. And we actually concentrate on the much more difficult fractions and hazardous fractions, such as LCD screens, lithium ion batteries, solar PV modules, mercury containing products, cadmium containing products, lead containing products. And we’re doing this by recovering the actual materials and then reusing them.

Now, our industry is quite diverse and it is widespread from local collectors in your community that work with scrap metal dealers and with recyclers like ourselves, all the way to multinationals and corporates that are huge entities with an international footprint. So our industry is, I would assume, this to be about a billion-rand industry in the entirety of South Africa.

Any particular projects or advancements by Reclite SA that you are particularly proud of?

The biggest advancement that Reclite SA has driven forward in the last couple of years is that we’ve decoupled ourselves from the concept that other international recyclers and large waste management companies had, whereby they would be buying specific equipment from Europe, America, China and Indonesia, for the recycling of the hazardous waste types, and then would rely very heavily on buying spare parts and having the technical support from overseas and having long lead times and being dependent on international markets to support the recycling operation. Very early on, we identified that as one of the big problem steps for our operation and we started developing our own recycling technology and our own recycling machinery, and we actually developed our own manufacturing system within South Africa that is now successfully manufacturing recycling machines for Reclite SA and for our partners in Africa.

What do you think is the biggest misconception is about recycling among the general public?

The biggest misconception about recycling in the general public is that everything has value and you need to be paid for everything. A lot of times the cost and effort that goes into the actual ability to collect smaller volumes from a very wide spread public and bring it into a single facility is actually one of the biggest cost drivers. So even though there might be an intrinsic value within the waste that we’re collecting, by the time we have the collection systems, the containers, the people, perhaps small incentives that can be paid in order to collect this waste, and then brought it into the facility, all that intrinsic value within the material is almost completely used up. So, it’s really important that recycling is not being done as, I can make money out of this, but it is a responsibility that we all have to ensure a clean and healthier future for the planet, our children and our environment.

Where else are you active, are you planning to expand into the African continent?

I’ve already mentioned a little bit about how we are actually expanding and where we see the future of Recline going. It’s not just the recycling company, but an actual support function for recycling, not just within South Africa, but within the African continent, in other countries, with companies that have the similar type of approach to our business ethics and morals to remove the hazardous components from the environment and bring them back into new products. So, we are actively working with several other African nations in expanding our technological ability to these facilities and to work together with those partners. And this is where we see our opportunities but also some of our biggest hurdles at the moment.

What are the main challenges and opportunities?

Our main hurdles obviously are that, within Africa, we have a huge growing population. We have extremely driven people. But we also have a very diverse governmental landscape and different drivers within each country towards the development of the recycling sector. So for us, the biggest challenge is to identify good funding sources and support mechanisms at the local level so that every local entity in each country is self-sustaining and that we can work together within a larger group to then be more efficient by being able to recover more materials at the same quality, that can then be made into new products. The biggest part is identifying where these products can then be manufactured into new goods and where the best points are within the African continent to base these larger facilities, and to then obviously centralize the remanufacturing of products, which is obviously part of the circular economy.

This is currently our biggest challenge and to have the correct funding for this, because a lot of the banks and normal funding institutions are localised; they would be for Southern Africa, for Northern Africa and for Western Africa. And we are looking at having a much more Eurocentric type of environment within Southern and Western Africa. We have extremely small countries with much smaller footprint, very high poverty rates and a lot of other challenges. And more of a different religious background as well, which has other implications on how lending structures work, how business is being conducted.

And then on the eastern side in Kenya and Rwanda, we have challenges that are much more of an infrastructure type environment. So we’re trying to currently come up with the best kind of way that we can work together because we have identified the right entities within these regions and they are the correct partners. We’re now just having a look at how can we best make this work and while ensuring that each and every facility is self-sustaining and profitable.

What keeps you excited about the green economy sector?

What keeps me excited about the green economy, is that it is not just this arbitrary word where we go around and hug trees and we save the whales and we do all of that. Yes, that’s an aspect of it. But the green economy sector is actually the future of how we should be doing business. That is the future of sustainable business practice because it integrates product manufacturing, product life cycle, product recovery for recycling, remanufacturing into new products and increasing the value of the intrinsic products that are within the various different products that go into the market. That is the green economy. And it’s an expression, and it’s been best expressed in the circular economy type principle. So, if we can get very close to a circular economy, we’re really doing the green economy because we are reusing as much as we can and we’re leaning very close to what nature does. Nature doesn’t waste, nature changes forms, but it all stays within the same product manufacturing cycle.

What in your view are the most current investment opportunities in this sector?

The most current investment opportunities within the green economy and circular economy sector we see is within the sustainable product manufacturing and the sustainable product recovery and recycling. Within Africa it is obviously within the fast moving consumer goods. Now this is a very big word. Why do we see that that’s where the biggest opportunity is? It’s very simple, because Africa is the fastest growing population in the world. It will be the largest population in the world by 2050, outpacing India and China. We have demands growing within this growing population that are predominantly around everyday use. So, obviously within the electronics sector, we’re looking at batteries, we’re looking at cables,  TVs, cell phone batteries and cell phones. Very simple, really high tech, but the things that we use every single day. And to be able to manufacture a cost-effective product, being able to take it, put it through its product cycle, and we are very good at reusing in Africa. So really, being able to supply that chain within the reuse market and then ensure that we can still get the product back at the end of life so that we can recover the materials that are important for us for the manufacturing again. And then on that manufacturing side, we’re really looking at specifics, specifically in the lithium-ion sector or the battery management sector, within steel, within plastics.

By being able to close the loop within these very specific regions, we can ensure business sustainability and business growth, purely based on having a larger population to satisfy, having more products that need to go onto the market because I have a higher demand. And then at the same time, being able to take these products back, getting them recovered and putting them back into these new manufacturing parts, reducing the need for virgin material and overseas imports; because right now, one of the biggest volatilities that we have in the market is our exchange rate fluctuations. So we, as Reclite, don’t see that as a hurdle. We see it as an opportunity because it allows us a growth for the internal market. And we really need to push that and that’s the opportunity we see in Africa.

You are part of the project pitch session at the upcoming Africa’s Green Economy Summit in Cape Town. What will be your message at the event?

My message is: come to the Mother City, have a look at what we can do, have a look at African technology, have a look at African solutions made in Africa for Africa, and go wild and be blown away. We look forward to seeing you.

How important is such an event for the continent in your view?

Very, very simple. We are so busy doing the work that we have very little time to actually display how we’re doing it, because we’re so driven and our industry changes so quickly and we need to adapt to it, that being able to have a platform where we can showcase what’s possible is so rare for us that these type of events are really, really important to showcase the ability of African technologies and being able to show it to the world and allow this foreign investment to come in and to bring it into Africa. Thank you.

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