The Four Stages of E-Waste Disposal

Note: Article adapted from here.

Following the information and communications technology boom, our reliance on technology has soared and along with it, our electronic waste. Globally, an alarming 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was disposed of in 2019. This number has grown significantly since and its upward trajectory shows no signs of slowing. It has been predicted that the yearly disposal of electronic waste will reach 74.7 Mt by 2030. It will take extreme efforts by organisations and consumers to be more conscious about their products' life cycles. Oftentimes, our electronic waste is shipped to developing countries where laws regulating their disposal are lax. Many countries in Africa are home to such dumping grounds. Their people are plagued by the site's toxic runoff, polluting their soils and waterbeds, as well as poisonous gases released into their atmosphere from incineration of the electronic waste. These African countries have however shown great progress in mitigating the impact of electronic waste. 13 African nations have implemented effective electronic waste policies and legislation to tackle the growing issue. Their efforts can be identified in four stages.

The first stage is to clearly define value chain actors through the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Framework. They have identified the need for producers of the electronic devices to be held accountable for the collection and treatment of its waste. As producers are now responsible for the safe disposal of their devices, they are more incentivised and amenable towards innovating their product design to better accommodate recycling. Through the implementation of the framework, the retailers are expected to take responsibility for their products' end-of-life management. This brings us to the second stage, ensuring sustainable financing. Under the EPR Framework the producers are also obligated to cover a portion of the cost of electronic waste collection, transfer, treatment and recycling. Their contributions are also channelled towards sponsoring campaigns and training programmes to spread awareness. Regulation has also been a key contributor to protect the financing behind the EPR Framework. Agbogbloshie, located in Ghana, is one of the world’s largest electronic waste dumpsites. To further allow for financial sustainability, Ghana has implemented an eco-levy on the import of used electronic devices. These steps allow the framework to be more resilient and maintain a strong foundation.

Once the framework has been properly established, the third stage is to collaborate with the private sector and ensure accountability. Several nations in Africa have implemented policies that initiate Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs) used to found EPR schemes. These organisations act as a device for producers, to better equip them in fulfilling their commitments under the EPR Framework. An example of this can be seen in South Africa, which has begun the adoption of the PRO model. The model has been successful in meeting the needs of a variety of sectors and waste streams and has proven to be highly adaptable. Finally, the fourth stage is to ensure the enforcement of the system. Another barrier to sustainability is the colossal amount of counterfeit devices on the market. Their parts are often faulty and rarely conform to safety standards. It is difficult to implement them into the EPR Framework and ensure their safe disposal. To combat this, countries in Africa have issued stringent regulatory checks. This can be seen in Zambia through their newly formed Zambia Information and Communications Technologies Authority (ZICTA). These four stages have been crucial for African countries in their journey towards reducing the substantial and wide-reaching negative impacts of improper electronic waste disposal.

Although their methods have been effective, the high associated costs, lags in regulatory implementation and private sector dependence are impediments to their sustainability goals.

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