Electronic waste, also called e-waste, is an essential subject to explore on the circular economy agenda. The objective is to produce no waste or pollution. Products are collected, repaired, reused and largely sorted and recycled using socially and environmentally responsible practices. This prevents the pollution and health risks associated with e-waste.
Electronic devices and electrical equipment – from household appliances to smart gadget and other ICT products – provide comfort and are great enablers for sustainable development impacting education, health delivery, addressing and mitigating climate issues and aiding in reliable communication – and on a larger scale vehicles for achieving the sustainable development goals by leveraging on digitalisation.
The demand for electrical and electronic equipment has increased by almost 3 percent annually in Africa. Consumer spending in Africa, mainly the middle-income class, had skyrocketed to an estimated US$1.3trillion in 2010 – equivalent to 50 percent of Africa’s GDP – and is forecasted to double by 2030. The United Nations estimated that by 2020, 25 to 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet: and this raises a growing concern about the afterlife of these devices.
The sale of mobile phones in Africa has increased in recent years to more than 50%, making Africa the fastest-growing mobile phone market in the world; and this is driven by increasing domestic consumption and the flourishing international electronic trade. Electronic waste management has become a priority for policymakers in Africa and the world at large; and in spite of these legal frameworks, about 80% of this waste is still found at landfills with only less than 20% responsibly recycled. The circular economy presents a brighter future, dealing with the design, life-span of the product, refurbishment, re-use, repairs, recovering functional and material value from the waste.
The materials used in manufacturing these products have a greater influence in their life-span, recovery and disposal; therefore, critical consideration should be given since these materials contain cadmium, mercury, flame-retardants and are harmful to human health and the environment.
If manufacturers are going to capture and recycle materials, they must design products that are different and eco-friendly which do not contain toxic substances. You do not want to contaminate your system if you are going to make it cyclical or reusable. In the circular economy agenda, chemicals should be a subject of discussion. Product design is crucial to accelerating economic reuse of assets as well as their components.
These products should be easily disassembled by users; thus a tear-down or simple overhaul/repair instruction manual should be included with troubleshooting steps in every product purchase, so users can easily identify how to repair their products. And this way, products become user-friendly – which reduces the rate at which consumers will discard them subsequently, reducing the frequency of purchasing and potential waste.
A shift from linear economy through urban mining
As the world shifts from a linear economy that traditionally follows the ‘take – make -dispose’ plan, in which raw materials are collected then transformed into products that are used until they are finally discarded as waste, to a circular economy, manufacturers should shift their operational structures to suit such a transition for sustainable and greener approaches. Urban mining focuses on the extraction of resources from complex waste streams. Harnessing the value from existing e-waste will save billions in material costs, and significantly reduce the carbon footprint of a product. Companies need to discuss how to harness resource recovery from e-waste as a strategic business advantage in the transition to a circular economy.
Any company practicing this approach will have a leap in growth for their product, and be well-recognised for their market drive and sustainability. There is financial gain since there is an opportunity to tap into the growing e-waste management market, expectedly reaching US$102.62billion by 2027 researchers estimate. Smartphones are the best starters for urban mining since more than a billion are shipped annually, with each one containing valuable materials worth extracting at over a US$50; and this reflects a potential of more than US$50billion annually.
This can evidently be considered as more viable than the conventional mining of metals and ores, and a step ahead in reducing the over-dependency on ground-mining and its continuous environmental depletion – curtailing corresponding carbon footprints released into the atmosphere and health risks. Global conflicts pose a threat to the supply chain. For instance, the war between Ukraine and Russia has caused a price escalation of raw materials that is affecting prices of commodities and the manufacturing industries.
Access to recycling facilities
Facilities to transform this waste is crucial to preventing it being dumped in landfills, informally handled and treated. The existence of recycling plants provide an avenue for strong supply chains to be established. African countries in recent years seem to be leading the drive toward sustainability, but little has been invested in the establishment of recycling facilities – making the ‘green world’ approach a shadow fight.
The setting up of community ‘collection booths’, which also serve as awareness and information centres, will go a long to ensure the value of such waste is harnessed at the grassroots level. This will create a lot of job opportunities. The focus of e-waste recycling as a socio-economic tool can drive community prosperity and accelerate circular economy participation.
Most raw materials used in the manufacture of smartphones are running out. This makes our demand for tech unsustainable due to the inconsistent supply of raw materials from the ground. Governments must revamp the recycling infrastructure to invest in more sustainable manufacturing, since circular economys consolidate economic growth with environmental benefits by transitioning to regeneration and restoration rather than extraction and consumption.
Leveraging on technology
Another critical dimension is adopting digital solutions in e-waste management. This will increase transparency in trade and reduce waste-crime. The use of drone imagery as well as the publication of real-time updates will be a game-changer. This intervention will be in line with the Basel convention ‘Prior Informed Consent’ requirements, which will be digitalised. The regulation requires countries to submit photo images as evidence to ascertain if their import trade is in conformity with the regulations to prevent the shipment of waste. This digitalised system will enhance compliance.
Extended producer responsibility should be well enforced. Take-back policy should be encouraged. A return for refurbishment programme can be instituted, which will be included in every purchase whereby consumers are made aware that their product can be returned and refurbished for a small amount of money. This will reduce the burden and desire for newer products, thus giving value for money and cutting down waste.
Sustainability, as it is said, cannot be achieved without education. Public awareness campaigns must be carried out, and manufacturers should also take upon themselves this task to engage their consumers.
The writer is the Exec. Director-Forum for Climate Action