Global E-Waste On The Rise, Despite Recycling Factories

Until the StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem, Reference No.1) initiative of the United Nations University (UNU) & the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) got busy in real earnestness, with the e-waste problem and developed a successful prototype recycling factory, piles of e-waste (electronic waste) that were steadily growing the world over, posed a grim, sinister portent to all concerned – environmentalists, governments, the healthcare industry, electronics manufacturers, academics and so on (for a detailed discussion on e-waste, read relevant parts of Reference No. 2 or other sources on the web). The cause for their fears was solid. e-waste, that is comprised primarily by trashed computers, mobile phones and their accessories, are rich in toxic substances/ chemicals – mercury, cadmium, arsenic & hexavalent chromium to name just a few. Not being amenable to the waste disposal processes known before SteP’s solution (pl see Reference No. 2 titled “Recycling – From E-Waste To Resources”, for details), they defied every possible method of being disposed off safely. And, consequently, e-waste kept piling up, unstoppably, all over the world.

The potency of e-waste to cause incapacitating/ severe health hazards in humans as well as irreversible damage to world environment had been known for sometime. Consequently those in the world that were aware, cheered up when SteP’s prototype factory saw the light of day! The prototype had been proven by running small, pilot factories successfully and may be easily adapted to suit any world location. So, watchers may have imagined that the end of the e-waste crisis was near, since all that apparently remained was the implementation of SteP’s solution on a large scale, all over the world and as quickly as possible!

So far, so good! However, to the huge disappointment of an expectant world, implementation projects, bogged down by a set of non-technical issues, are struggling either to take off or to make any significant progress. The major issues thwarting progress are: advocacy, institutionalisation, legislation & sustainability. And while stakeholders are trying to clear these roadblocks, precious time is being wasted. The result? Not only has e-waste growth not been contained by the numbers of recycling factories setup, but according to figures available with StEP, (using 2013 as base year), e-waste will grow and reach 133% its 2013 volume by 2017.

I will attempt to briefly explain the bottlenecks mentioned above before closing.

ADVOCACY:

In many nations, government & the general public are still not sufficiently aware of either the severity or scale of the e-waste problem. (Had sufficient people been aware, there would have been a public outcry for remedial action, everywhere, by now!). Hundreds and thousands more people in every nation need to be made aware of the problem quickly, and those that already know need to be reminded.

Governments, preoccupied with their home tasks, often seem to forget the e-waste problem. Environmental agencies, NGOs, local groups and citizens need to remind them frequently about what is at stake. Governments also need to be reminded periodically that their responses to the e-waste problem in the past have NOT been adequate. They need to drop complacency and get ready to tackle e-waste in a big away, immediately, before available time runs out and the e-waste problem turns into a crisis.

LION’S SHARE (OVER 85%) OF RECYCLING CARRIED OUT BY THE INFORMAL SECTOR:

According to available data, global e-waste recycling is mostly carried out by the unorganized, informal sector in Asia. This has resulted in poor recycling performance. Lack of established, standard processes has led to a disadvantageous diversity in processing methods, ad-hoc processes, machines, tools used etc. Adequate numbers of skilled/ trained staff are not easy to find. There is no guarantee that proper safety measures are practised or that outputs of recycling(*) checked to ensure that levels of residual toxic substances are below approved limits. The result is a frittering away of the power that would have been available if one resorted to organized recycling – inability to upscale/ down-scale rapidly, enforce workplace safety, ensure ‘green’ & efficient processes, economies of scale, monitoring & control activities, quality of processes & outputs etc. Therefore, the ownership of the recycling sector needs to change into the hands of a more powerful entity – one that has the power to unify, standardize, make plans, provide infrastructure & resources, technical support, find/ train skilled workers, enforce standards/ quality etc. easily.

The only suitable candidate for such a position is the government, in most countries. Governments need to take ownership of the recycling sector and scale it up to the size required to effectively take on the e-waste problem in their respective countries speedily.

INSTITUTIONALISATION:

Even after the accumulated world backlog has been cleared, e-waste will continue to be generated, in sufficiently large quantities as to form a regular stream of waste (according to UNU, the world average, per-capita e-waste generation for 2014 was 7 Kg, world population being 7 billion and; this will rise, in the foreseeable future). Thus, the continuous, long-term requirement of e-waste recycling facilities. And, by consequence, just like any other sector of established industry, e-waste recycling needs to be institutionalised as an independent industry sector, in its own right, enjoying the same privileges as others viz. various sectors under the “manufacturing industry” category, VARs (value added resellers), OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and so on.

It also follows, quite naturally, that to become an independent industry sector, a formal institutional and legal framework must be created to support it.

SUSTAINABILITY:

Sustainability of recycling factories requires that they generate profits from their operations. This, in turn, means that a certain minimum volume of input e-waste must be guaranteed to each factory and outputs of recycling(*) find markets where they can be sold to generate adequate profits.

The above is a list of the most typical and important stoppers encountered to date. However, StEP advises users not to blindly adopt these factors as they are. Each country must also take into account their specific environment, conditions, laws, policies etc. as part of the adaptation exercise in order to effectively identify/ tackle the roadblocks specific to them.

(*) The term “output of recycling” has been used rather than “product” since the recycling industry is still in a stage of infancy. Once these outputs are perfected to match input requirements of upstream industry(ies) where they will be used, have industry recognized descriptions and specifications etc. they would qualify to be named as “products”.