WEEE: Building e-waste capacity
Elisabeth Smith, Executive Officer for the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, explains how WEEE management policies should be developed.
According to the UN Global E-waste Monitor, 44.7 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) was generated in 2016 – this is estimated to rise to over 50 million tonnes by 2020. A lot of this ends up in developing countries, which do not yet have proper recycling systems, or even established policies.
In Africa, Ghana and Nigeria are the most common destinations for e-waste. The Basel Convention bans the export of hazardous waste from OECD to non-OECD countries, while the Bamako Convention, ratified in 2013, regulates the transboundary movement of waste between many African countries. However, illegal trade in end-of-life electronics remains an issue – and alongside this, very often items being imported are classed as ‘used electronics’, so they might be reused again, though they will also end up as waste.
Currently, only around 20 per cent of WEEE worldwide is documented to be collected and properly recycled; based on current estimates, this means that in 2019 almost 40 million tonnes of e-waste is undocumented. This substantially increases the likelihood that it has not been adequately disposed of – and e-waste in the wrong place creates devastating impacts for the communities affected by it, most often in developing countries.
The e-waste stream contains more than 20 types of plastic, along with scrap metals and rare earth elements. In a non-functional recycling system where electronics are burned, dioxins from the plastic, which are carcinogenic and harmful to human health, enter the atmosphere. There is now a proposal that plastic waste could be considered hazardous waste within the Basel Convention, which would make the transboundary movement of plastic waste – present in much e-waste – much more difficult than it currently is.
However, given how e-waste is set to increase, it’s important that every country has its own comprehensive management system for dealing with electronic waste, one that is properly adapted to the local circumstances. This doesn’t mean that every country has to recycle every component of an electronic product until final refining, but they do need to have a system in place where collection and pre-dismantling are financed and the domestic recycling of certain components is manageable.
Often, people in developing countries who want to develop waste management policies look at the European example, but bringing it into their context is very complex. So how can we support policy-makers in developing countries to bridge the gap between theory and practice? Working with them to build up a system is key, integrating the proper technology, setting up collection schemes, thinking about financing – it requires a whole system approach. And then you have to make sure that the people affected by the regulation are complying with it; if you don’t make sure the recyclers and collection sites report, the system will not work.
Underlying everything, the key is to have an agency that would implement the policy and handle the transparent registration and regulation of facilities treating e-waste. In European countries, these agencies typically exist as a standalone entity. But in developing countries, especially in the early stages of developing a system, they are typically embedded in a bigger organisation such as an environmental protection agency. When a government develops regulatory policy for e-waste, for example introducing extended producer responsibility, this will be the starting point for a specialist body.
Producer responsibility is an effective financing system, but in most developing countries there is not the infrastructure and policy framework to support this. At the moment, a majority of progress in these countries is through development cooperation, typically funded by developed countries or producers. These implement specific projects in developing countries, building organisation, facilities and knowledge, which can be really good to kickstart an e-waste system. However, in the end it needs to be the government in a developing country that creates, implements and regulates a producer responsibility system.