E-waste: Companies and Governments target this untapped treasure trove

Electronic waste (e-waste) is a persistent problem that has reached critical levels. From printers to solar panels, castoff electronics represent a massively damaging ecological challenge, but also a growing economic opportunity. Taking steps closer towards a circular economy, both the private and public sectors in various countries worldwide are looking to capitalise on the untapped wealth that can be found in our mountains of e-waste. 

On the scrapheap – a growing challenge

According to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), in 2019, 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated worldwide. This is an increase of 21% over the preceding five years. In the same year, only 17.4% of all this e-waste was properly recycled, which means that over 44 million tonnes were either illegally dumped or otherwise left untreated.

Altogether, this translates into 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents from being released into the atmosphere, not to mention the long-term, health-damaging effects of thousands of harmful substances – including lead, mercury and other toxic materials – leaching into the soil and groundwater wherever it is dumped.

Though most of the world’s consumable technology – smartphones, tablets and personal computers, etc – are enjoyed in the richer, more developed nations, it’s the global south that receives the bulk of the e-waste. 40% of all US-produced e-waste is exported to developing countries, mostly in Africa and Asia. Typically, the informal and unregulated recycling efforts of people in these countries mean exposure to hazardous working conditions that result in long-long health conditions or an early death. Currently there are an estimated 12.9 million women and 18 million children and adolescents working in the informal waste sector, of which e-waste is a growing subsector.

Tapping the scrap – Capitalising on e-waste retrieval

The combined value of all the e-waste produced in 2020 was recently estimated to be in excess of $57 billion. Currently, that total may be higher than $63 billion. Alongside their base metal and plastic elements, discarded electronics also have precious materials including gold, silver, copper and platinum that can be safely retrieved.

But even though the opportunity is plain to see, diverting e-waste streams from landfill for safe and sustainable recycling remains an underserved market that is only just beginning to scale up. Many initiatives occurring, particularly those done as part of a public-private partnership (PPP), can best be described as exploratory.

For example, last month Delhi’s civic authorities launched a small, combined venture with a private firm to collect e-waste for proper recycling and disposal. Similarly, India’s Bihar Government authorised the creation of 142 e-waste collection points. Even if viewed generously, this is small fry compared to the ongoing activities of the problematic informal waste collection industry.

However, larger schemes are emerging. In the UAE this month, a new law was introduced that requires all retailers nationwide to supply a collection box for unwanted devices, batteries and other electronic waste. The law will soon also require suppliers to collaborate with the authorities in planning safe and sustainable disposal of said waste. Colour-coded recycling bins are also soon to be introduced across the country to support proper recycling and disposal.

Closer private-public collaboration in the UAE regarding e-waste can be seen in the growing success of private firm Enviroserve’s ‘Green Truck’ venture. Endorsed by the Ministry of Environment, Enviroserve’s green truck fleet collects 1500 green bins (dedicated to recycling) and segregates out all e-waste for recycling. After the strong response of its early efforts, Enviroserve is aiming to double its e-waste capacity in 2021.

A triple push for e-waste recycling – Health, wealth and growing demand

The growth of the e-waste recycling market is still by all accounts smaller than its potential suggests it should be. While market entry barriers (high investment costs, complex recycling technology adoptions, etc) may prove daunting for a while yet, it is more than likely that these will be overcome by organisations with the capacity to become market leaders and hence achieve substantial long-term profits.

IRENA recently predicted that the demand for lithium and nickel will increase by 90% and 70% respectively in the next few years, with other precious metals involved in consumer technologies also experiencing sizeable demand raises. This demand push, alongside the moral and ecological obligation of tackling the various forms of toxic pollution associated with e-waste, should translate into stronger growth for its recycling.

Whenever commercial opportunities are combined with long-term societal benefits and ecological imperatives, the outcome invariably is that the associated industry or practice enjoys swift growth. Most recently we’ve seen this happen with renewable energy production, electric vehicles, and even other forms of eco-friendly waste management in municipal and medical waste.

With the opportunity well documented, and new technologies emerging with increasing viable price points, the stage is set for an upsurge in e-waste recycling.