The e-waste challenge: A call for collaborative circular solutions




By Stephen Chege

Technology has become an indispensable tool for businesses and individuals, from smartphones and tablets to servers and data centres. Digitalisation and the use of connected devices are only expected to grow as technology rapidly evolves to offer even more capabilities, as well as provide solutions to global challenges, such as climate change resilience and sustainable socioeconomic development. With this increasing reliance on tech, comes a growing responsibility–the mounting issue of electronic waste, or e-waste.

E-waste is the fastest-growing stream of waste in the world. According to the most recent Global E-waste Monitor, which conducts research every three to four years, more than 50 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste is generated globally per year. That is equivalent to about seven kilograms of e-waste per person, which is set to double by 2050 if our consumption habits remain the same. Most of this waste is either dumped, burnt, or unaccounted for, potentially releasing harmful toxins to the environment and communities and emitting carbon and other gasses that contribute to global warming.

Africa generates 2.9 million Mt of e-waste annually, not including the amounts of e-waste illegally imported from developing countries. Research reveals a mere 1% is formally collected and recycled, and infrastructure for environmentally sound e-waste management on the continent is lagging behind other parts of the world.

The private sector has a significant role to play in addressing the e-waste crisis. In particular, technology companies are not only major producers and users of electronics, from network equipment to devices, but also wield substantial influence over consumer behaviour. Circular business models are gaining traction in the industry. Research reveals that 90% of global telco operators believe the circular economy is important to their organisation and 89% say it is part of their current business strategy.

This transition to a circular business model involves maximising the longevity of electronics, which are made with recyclable and recycled material using renewable energy and ensuring that these electronics do not end up as waste. As the technology value chain is complex, collaboration between the private and public sectors is essential if we are to implement circularity initiatives, which will help reduce the negative environmental impact of e-waste and create a more sustainable future.

In Egypt, Vodafone Egypt partnered with the Egyptian Ministry of Environment, the United Nations Development Programme and the Federation of Egyptian Industries to develop the e-TADWEER digital platform, which encourages citizens to recycle old electronic devices safely through awareness campaigns and discounts and vouchers in exchange for products. Since its launch in April 2021, e-TADWEER has recycled 70.8Mt of e-waste, equivalent to 390 000 mid-size cars.

Technology companies also have the opportunity to engage with manufacturers and suppliers to improve the eco-design and sustainable production of electronics, leading to greater repairability, durability, recyclability, and thus a longer lifespan. This includes using recycled content for devices, such as the Eco-SIM, which is a half-sized SIM card made of recycled plastic. Other initiatives involve implementing technologies to remove the need for these materials, such as the e-SIM, which can reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting physical SIM cards.

In Kenya, Safaricom partnered with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Centre and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to create an e-waste management program. The Programmme enables customers to deposit used electronic equipment at any of Safaricom’s retail centers and offices countrywide. This has resulted in 1,950 tons of e-waste recycled, 100% elimination of single use plastics and a 50% reduction of sim cards also spurred by the dematerilisation projet around eSIM.

Another key component to solving the e-waste problem is consumer behaviour. Driving awareness about sustainability and introducing incentives for take-back schemes and refurbished devices can increase the longevity of electronics. At Vodacom, for example, our Good as New programme aims to boost smartphone penetration and reduce e-waste by providing a selection of certified pre-owned smartphones at an affordable price. In addition, the pan-industry Eco Rating initiative is encouraging suppliers to reduce the environmental impact of devices while helping consumers identify and compare the most sustainable mobile phones on the market.

In extending the lifespan of equipment and devices, technology companies can also proactively engage and partner with recyclers, repairers and waste management operators to ensure a circular flow of electronics. Organisations can also implement waste disposal management programmes that focus on resale and redeployment of network and IT equipment. Once the life span of this equipment is exhausted, it can be recycled responsibly using approved recycling agencies. Obsolete batteries, classified as hazardous waste, can go to a licensed facility for incineration. In this way, network equipment can be diverted from landfill sites and not harm the environment.

Furthermore, regulation, such as South Africa’s extended producer responsibility scheme, can be a positive step to support the circular economy while strengthening the resilience and scalability of e-waste initiatives. Regulation can also promote sustainability in design and manufacturing through material and process requirements for electronics, taxation and subsidies. However, effective policies targeting e-waste require knowledge sharing by all stakeholders across the value chain and addressing current data gaps in e-waste streams for better decision-making.

If we are to alleviate the enormous challenge of e-waste and reduce its impact on the environment and human health, we need to come together to drive real change. By promoting a circular economy and collaborating across the value chain, we can ensure the digital revolution is not just a leap forward in technology but also a leap forward in environmental consciousness and responsibility.

(Stephen Chege is the Chief Regulatory & External Affairs Officer, Vodacom Group).

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