The Electronic Waste Challenge: A Global Perspective

Electronics have become a very important part of our lives. Every day, we keep upgrading to newer, faster gadgets. And when they break, it is often more expensive to repair them than to buy new ones. If you look at how people at the moment
still use their phones, it’s not longer than one or two years that they use it, and then they go on to the next phone. The result? More and more electronic waste, all around the world. In 2016, around 44.7 Million tons of electronic waste were created. This is equivalent to the weight of 4,500 Eiffel towers. Five years ago, my leg was numb and swelled and I was told that some of the activities I had been carrying out could be the cause. I had stepped on CRT glass, which was broken and was lying on the ground. I was able to seek medical attention and I decided no this had to stop. CRT glass, or Cathode-ray tube glass, is found
in old televisions and computer monitors. This glass contains lead, which is very toxic. CRT glass is only one of many unsafe parts
in electronics that require professional treatment. But in low and middle income countries, many people earn a living from extracting and recycling parts from electronic waste. They do this as a part of what is called
the informal waste sector. Informal recycling of unsafe parts, like CRT glass,
can harm people’s health and the environment. The informal sector is of course at risk when it comes to certain toxins. With time very many informal e-waste handlers have died. And the elements that took them to their death bed
were related to electronic waste activities. Of course these were the crude methods
like burning of cables. There are over 15 million people around the world
working in the informal waste sector Many of them collect, dismantle, repair and recycle electronic waste, turning it into an opportunity to earn money. They are also very inventive, probably sometimes
more inventive than European industries on how to handle complex wastes
in a very low cost manner. They do a pretty good job concerning collection. Ghana has a much higher collection rate of e-waste than European countries have. And they do a good job in dismantling, they have very good knowledge. It comes to limitations when it comes to state of the art disposal,
proper treatment of hazardous components. With training, this informal sector can become a legitimate business. It can support livelihoods and make a difference
for the environment. It is important for us to not look at it as a challenge,
but as an opportunity because we’ve worked where a lot of young people have been doing the wrong things in terms of trying to earn a livelihood, in terms of extracting materials, extracting things in the wrong way. But it is possible with minimum changes that they can bring in, with investment in some technologies, following practices with labor laws. As we speak I have brought onboard over 2.000 practitioners in the informal sector, who are doing things based on the best practices. Recycling companies can support this by giving incentives to informal collectors for bringing the waste to them. We give free training and we give basic tools for them
to use in the dismantling processes. And then what we have also done as a company in order to help them take care of their health issues; we pay them fair wages because in order for them not to burn for example the cables and then let the dioxins into the atmosphere. We actually pay them fair prices so that they do not waste their time by burning and then inhaling the dioxins. Governments can support formal recycling with laws. But laws and regulations need to make sure recycling is done safely and sustainably. And since having high standards in recycling costs money, laws also need to make sure costs for recycling the unsafe parts are covered. For example, in the European Union, laws make producers responsible for their products being recycled. This means that, ultimately,
they need to cover these costs. There are a number of countries in Asia which have e-waste legislation in place for over 20 years which are working quite well. Korea, Taiwan etc., China is also doing things. But still there are many countries with no effective policy measures in place. E-waste is a new thing in Africa and many people do not understand what e-waste is and the impact that it has in our society. Most of the waste comes from electronics being used
and thrown away inside a country’s borders. But at times, imported electronic waste
also adds to the problem. Countries who signed the United Nations Basel Convention made it illegal to ship electronic waste internationally. But it is still legal to ship second-hand electronics for re-use. A study in the port of Lagos estimated that
around 60 thousand tons of used electronics were imported into Nigeria in 2016. 19% of them were not working. The legislation needs to be need to be in
place before you can do any enforcement activities. It should be a kind of a level playing field so that you have the same legislation in other countries as well. If one country is banning the import of certain types of waste, if we do some research or investigations to see where the waste is ending up actually it’s always the places where you don’t want to have them. But even with no laws in place, producers, recyclers and consumers play an important role. Recycling is the future of business. It’s an old business but it is changing in a way that will cover into the future through new market opportunities like the circular economy which is so important. We have seen more and more the key role of entrepreneurs
in enabling in the country the creation of an ecosystem which is able to collect and properly recycle the electronic waste. If you want to create systemic change you also need
to look at your own business model and how it operates within the economic system. What we try to do is add that value also at different levels within the supply chain to the people who are making the products. And also looking at behaviour of consumers and how they use these products, because in the end if the consumers can use their phones twice as long then you only have to produce half the amount of phones, which is very good for the environment. We have to build a good mechanism and good coordination with stakeholders that are involved in e-waste. Government of course, community and the producers,
recyclers and also the informal sector. I think the hard thing is how to make the
informal sector join together to handle e-waste. To solve the growing electronic waste problem, everyone will have to play their part. International trainings and knowledge sharing are already helping with the setup of recycling systems. But more efforts are needed. We need the wider society, we need the general public but also school pupils to really become active. This means we need to expose them to the significance of raw materials in their everyday life, show them how we rely on materials to make our lives more comfortable. In our mobile phones, our laptops and our transportation systems.

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