Thursday, February 26, 2009

African e-waste project to serve as blueprint

A Swiss-backed project to recycle e-waste in South Africa will be shared with other countries as a model for generating income while safely disposing of old electronics.

An initial test in Cape Town treated 58 tonnes of electronic equipment, created 19 jobs and made a profit of $14,000 (SFr16,480) over ten months in 2008, according to published results.

The joint backers, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa), Hewlett-Packard and the Geneva-based non-governmental organisation Global Digital Solidarity Fund, are heralding it as a success story that is on its way to become fully sustainable.

"What we wanted to achieve with this pilot project was to really build an example of recycling in developing countries, especially in the context of Africa, of where it can start and how it can build up, be socially responsible and create jobs, in a sustainable way," Mathias Schluep, the project manager, told swissinfo.

"The good outcome of this is that we really can use this and it is already replicated in Durban. We also want to use this in other African countries, and say this is an example, and how it can be done. This knowledge is needed in many countries."

In addition to income from the safe disposal and recycling of old and unwanted items such as televisions and computers, money was also generated through the repair and resale of some items.

Perfect set-up

Cape Town was chosen for the project in part because it is Hewlett-Packard's biggest market in Africa and therefore generates the most waste.

Empa had also previously developed local knowledge of the recycling infrastructure in the city and knowledge of how much e-waste was being generated.

"The difficulty is that South Africa does not really have a sustainable recycling system in place, like we have in European countries. We had a perfect set-up in South Africa to develop such a pilot project," said Schluep.

Elsewhere in the continent, countries are having to deal with illegal imports of e-waste, often originating from the United States and Europe.

In Kenya, for example, there are no viable disposal systems and regulations for treating the 3,000 tonnes of computers, printers and monitors accumulated in the country in 2007.

Greenpeace states that developed countries routinely export e-waste to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. The pressure group says inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 per cent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal.

In the US, it is estimated that 50 to 80 per cent of the waste collected for recycling was being exported in this way.

The organisation says that although recycling can be a good way to reuse the raw materials in a product, the hazardous chemicals in e-waste mean that electronics can harm workers in the recycling yards, as well as their neighbouring communities and environment.

In developed countries, electronics recycling takes place in purpose-built recycling plants under controlled conditions, but in developing countries there are no such controls and recycling is done by hand in scrap yards, often by children.

In the last week, the Zurich-based NZZ newspaper reported a cargo container with unchecked computer waste originating from Switzerland had been located in Antwerp, destined for Africa.
Attractive waste?

"It is one of the fastest growing waste streams, apart from general household waste," noted Schluep.

He argues that it is a particularly attractive form of waste as it can generate income and create jobs, but is tricky as it can be hazardous.

"So how can we make a sustainable income, especially in developing countries, out of this waste stream? You have to manage it, you need standards, you need the best available technologies," he pointed out.

"Our pilot [project] shows that the problem can be solved," Schluep added. "Through the mediation of knowledge and skills, we have the environmental and health problems under control. And even better, creative minds in the private sector were able to create other work from it."

The second stage of the project aims to train private local businesses that have become involved in e-waste disposal, work in partnership with them and introduce programmes in other countries. Experience gained from the project will also be included in a Unesco guide to computer recycling.