Responsible E-waste Recycling in Africa




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SAN FRANCISCO — Backyard recyclers of electronics waste in developing countries use open fires and chemicals to extract precious metals, then dump the hazardous byproducts. Using no safety precautions, they expose themselves, their neighbors and their local environment to lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame retardants that can damage almost every organ and system in the human body. That may be about to change. In February, the electronic products manufacturer Hewlett-Packard announced preliminary findings of a study on responsible electronic waste processing in African countries, based in part on a pilot facility it helped build in Cape Town.

Inspired by the work in India of Empa, the Swiss federal laboratory for materials testing and research, which is a partner of H.P. in the Cape Town project, the study looked at e-waste management in South Africa, Morocco and Kenya, including local legislation, awareness and behavior, infrastructure needs, and the amount of waste generated. Another partner in the project is the Global Digital Solidarity Fund, a Swiss philanthropy that works to bridge the digital divide.

From February to November 2008, the Cape Town facility processed approximately 60 tons of electronic equipment, generated about $14,000, and employed 19 people. The plant treats computers, monitors, printers, and mobile phones from any manufacturer, not just H.P. Other products considered e-waste by activists, like televisions and DVD and MP3 players, are not accepted.

Workers refurbished and resold some products and dismantled others to sell the raw materials to businesses that recycle metals and plastics. “They also make nice jewelry out of some of the processors and boards,” said Klaus Hieronymi, environment manager for H.P. in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

A similar plant has since been set up in Durban, without subsidies from either H.P. or the government. “We hope this idea will spread around South Africa,” Mr. Hieronymi said.

As much as 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated worldwide annually. People in developing countries are using — and discarding — more electronics every year, a waste management challenge that is complicated by the vast quantities of electronics trash that developed countries also dump on them in a bid to externalize costs.

Efforts by one environmentalist organization, the Basel Action Network, or BAN, to curtail that practice led to the 1995 BAN Amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal — a treaty banning the export of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries. The European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, meanwhile, makes E.U. manufacturers responsible for products at the end of their life span. But the United States is not a signatory to the BAN Amendment, and both the United States and Europe allow the export of materials categorized as reusable.

In theory, reuse is desirable because it extends product life and allows access to information technology for people who can not afford new products.

But a BAN study found that up to 75 percent of “reusable” electronic goods are obsolete, do not work or are destroyed in transit: and even products that can be repaired generate waste because technicians usually replace broken parts rather than fixing them.

West African countries like Nigeria have a larger problem with dumping than countries in southern Africa, Mr. Hieronymi said.

But even in South Africa, projects like the Cape Town facility trouble some activists, who fear that they will attract even more shipments from exporters who think their electronic trash will be processed using best practices.

The reality is that you can not just “plop down” a high-tech facility in a developing country and expect it to operate safely, said Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN. Safe operation requires worker training; laws regulating waste management, worker safety and whistle-blower protections; law enforcement and monitoring; downstream residue management; and additional infrastructure, including smelters and hazardous waste facilities.

“You do not get that in a developing country,” Mr. Puckett said. “If you had that, it wouldn’t be a developing country.”

H.P.’s study has borne that out, particularly in Morocco and Kenya, which have “almost nonexistent” safety regulations and no enforcement, said Mr. Hieronymi. South Africa has some worker safety laws but little enforcement.

“Even if you had laws and enforcement, those people need the dollar today,” he said, referring to the individuals and small businesses typically involved in waste processing. “They don’t care about long-term health and environmental effects.”

Disposing of electronic waste involves a series of processes, including shredding, grinding, smelting and burning — the last two being toxic processes that call for special pollution-containing plants.

There are several hazardous waste incinerators in Africa, but they are designed primarily for chemical industry waste. Because the amount of electronic waste is relatively small, H.P. has no plans to build its own incinerators, Mr. Hieronymi said.

In any event, “even the most well-intended effort is still going to have hazardous byproducts, whether it’s in the form of emissions or some kind of a slag after you’ve incinerated it,” said Barbara B. Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, of which BAN is a member.

“These toxic residual wastes need to be managed,” she said, “and most developing countries don’t have safe facilities for where that can go.”

Infrastructure and social systems, moreover, vary greatly across Africa. “You cannot take a solution for South Africa and implant it in Morocco,” Mr. Hieronymi said. “The industrialization of that country is completely different, plus in Morocco you have a clan structure of families who are already treating waste.”

One aim of H.P.’s initiative is to provide safer jobs for people who are already working in the informal recycling business. But that can be challenging.

In many countries where informal recyclers are active, H.P.’s free take-back programs go unused. “If you put a perfect recycling facility in South Africa or Nigeria, it’s there, it’s not used, it’s rotting, because the people who are collecting the PCs on the road and can make a dollar on it by processing it in the backyard will not give that PC to the recycling industry,” Mr. Hieronymi said.

One answer is to pay informal collectors for waste — as Empa does in India. Still, it is unclear whether this model can provide as many jobs as the informal economy currently offers. With that in mind, H.P. is trying not to innovate too far. “In Cape Town, we didn’t put a fully automated recycling facility that needs just two engineers and a secretary to run it,” Mr. Hieronymi said. “We have instead 19 people.” Those 19 handle just the processing side at the facility, he added. Far more people can be engaged in waste collection.

Ms. Kyle lauded these efforts but said the number of jobs should not be the chief consideration; reducing pollution is paramount.

“You have to recognize that the people who are doing this work are poisoning themselves and others,” she said. “It’s not right to just put the economic filter of potential wages lost if there are fewer jobs available from a plant.”

Ultimately, the solution to the problem of electronic waste is to design better, cleaner products with fewer hazardous materials and less waste generally. H.P. has recognized that, Mr. Hieronymi said. “It’s quite easy for people like me to convince our design engineers that they should invest maybe a $1 or $2 into the manufacturing or design of the product because we can save $3 to $4 on the recycling side,” he said.

Designs are already cleaner than they once were. For example, cathode ray tubes in old computer monitors contained leaded glass, and even older laptops used fluorescent lighting, which contain mercury. New models are made with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which are less hazardous to recycle.

E.U. regulations have restricted the amounts of hazardous material that can be incorporated in electronics for the European market — a development that has pushed manufacturers to clean up their products.

“We are also creating demand for recycled material,” Mr. Hieronymi said. “We have printers that contain up to 80 percent recycled plastics. Most of our ink cartridges have a recycling content of more than 75 percent.”