The proper management of electronic waste (e-waste) in developing countries continues to ruffle the feathers of both environmental groups and international corporations alike. With potential human and environmental contaminants like lead, mercury and cadmium being released into ecosystems through burning and other dangerous processes, organizations around the globe continue to research how to effectively improve and this growing issue.
A pilot study recently completed by Hewlett-Packard conducted in Kenya, Morocco and South Africa revealed that economically sustainable e-cycling is possible, with the proper knowledge and funding in place from the get-go.
“What we’re looking at is producing a model that is replicable across the African region, that safeguards the environment, safeguards the health of the people involved and creates local jobs,” said Dr. Kirstie McIntyre, HP environmental compliance manager, Europe, Middle East and Africa, in a podcast.
The pilot plant in Cape Town is now self-supporting, bringing in almost $19,600 in its first year and processing 60 tons of e-waste. According to McIntyre, the model demonstrates that when handled properly “recycling e-waste in Africa can be made safer.”
Set up with local labor, HP provided the knowledge and funding to get it started. The facility now employs 19 people and runs collection and dismantling services. They also created a waste-to-art program, in which artists have been able to sell creations from dismantled parts. A similar facility is now being built in another region of South Africa.
However, according to McIntyre, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for the proper treatment of e-waste in developing nations – but there are key elements.
One important step that could be utilized in a number of localities is the the collection of e-waste on a manual level, as it is currently in the U.S. and Europe. Next-level processing, such as dismantling, ascertaining if items can be refurbished, then sorting, could then take place in regulated facilities.
For example, in the South Africa pilot, HP “found that what is called ‘the informal sector’ is very active in developing countries […] There are ways of incentivzing the informal sector and also encouraging people to do proper recycling treatment activities, which safeguards the environment and the health of the people involved.”
Providing local recyclers with basic tools is another key to the solution. “As long as you are dismantling in a correct way, there’s no harm,” said McIntyre, providing an example that by simply providing recyclers with cable strippers, hazardous fires can be avoided and a higher quality product, like copper wire, can be collected for resale.
Dealing with the mounting volume of e-waste also continues to be a main focus. According to a press release,the Kenyan portion of the study “demonstrated although the country is producing 3,000 tons of e-waste per year, with an increase of 200 percent annually, there is a clear lack of legislative framework and practical e-waste management systems. ”
The New York Times also recently reported that “as much as 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated worldwide annually.”
Moving forward, the best solution may be a combination of efforts, including decreasing and eliminating hazardous materials in electronics, promoting reuse of older electronics and raising awareness of safe recycling, especially in those nations handling the bulk of the world’s waste.