Recyclers would be pleased to close the loop on e-scrap but there are many challenges that need to be addressed including the legislative framework, lack of accurate data, infrastructure issues, technology, market investments, etc., to make this happen. Panelists at the e-scrap recycling roundtable session “Closing the Loop on E-scrap: The Missing Links” held during the recent International WEEE & Battery Recycling Virtual Conference pointed to several reasons and the missing links leading to the delay in going circular. They provided an overview of e-scrap recycling in various regions and the opportunities, and sustainability movement influencing recycling as a priority for users, producers of electronics equipment, and addressed major topics and possible steps that could help close the loop. Swaliha Shanavas reports.
Touching upon the state of electronics recycling at present, Adrian Clews, Managing Director, Hinckley Group, said the company was the first government approved e-scrap recycling entity in Nigeria. In Africa, there are a unique set of challenges. Nigeria is one of the largest economies in Africa and one of the biggest producers of e-scrap. “It is estimated that Nigeria generates approximately 200,000 tons of e-scrap per annum. We are one of the few actors in the market that ensures that this material is processed correctly,” said Clews. About 98 percent of the material still goes through the informal channels, so a lot doesn’t reach the formal sector. It mostly goes through the informal sector from households and companies and reaches some informal recycling facilities or is exported, he explained. “So, volumes for the formal recycling sector are poor though volumes in country are high. This is a big problem that we need to solve. We are looking at more formal take-back options and at getting more support from the government to ensure that enforcement is as best as it can be.”
India faces a similar situation, said Akshay Jain, Managing Director, Namo eWaste Management Ltd. A lot of material moves through the informal sector, “but one positive thing that the government has done in terms of e-scrap is the introduction of the Extended Producer Responsibility regulations in 2016.” Since it was introduced over five years back, there are strict measures being taken to implement the same, he noted. So, the groundwork is done and there is increasing awareness among the people who are now contributing by disposing the e-scrap in the right manner. The informal sector still plays a major role, but we are working to overcome those challenges,” he added.
After the monetisation of the whole process, which is now coming from the producers, they have seen a surge in capacities that have increased multifold in the past five years, said Jain. But in terms of achieving full formal recycling in an ethical manner, he said “we are still far from it, but we are slowly getting there.”
Neil Reid, Waste Electrical & Electronics Equipment (WEEE) Senior Operations Manager, Holoul Electronic Recycling Treatment Company was in agreement with Adrian Clews regarding the state of e-scrap recycling. Saudi Arabia being the largest country in the GCC, from the WEEE perspective, he said “KSA produces around 400,000 tons; a lot of that is white goods. But looking at the data there is huge potential.” He also stated that they were not sure of the accuracy of the data. The producers were not necessarily in the country and the distributors were moving the material out, and there was no feedback on what was coming back in, he pointed out. “The numbers are quite sketchy and are based on sales figures. For 2021, we have seen around 260,000 tons of category 1-4 being sold in KSA. We’re trying to calculate the arisings out of those. But again, it’s the informal market that dominates hugely.”
Among the key issues, he noted the lack of regulation and enforcement for the material that is being generated, infrastructure challenges and certain cultural aspects as well. But the sector is still in its infancy and there are some good initiatives being generated by the government with the formation of SIRC, and they are looking to acquire or integrate and work with private partners, he highlighted. “I’m sure that there will be a transition into authorised treatment facilities in the future. But at present we do have a challenge,” said Reid.
From a European perspective, Thea Kleinmagd, Circular Material Chains Innovator, Fairphone said Europe ranks first in e-scrap collection rates, but unfortunately also leads in terms of e-scrap generation. “Every person is generating 16 kgs of e-scrap per year, though smartphones are a small part of it. But because smartphones have a fast replacement cycle, we estimate that there are around 700 million smartphones lying around in European drawers. They are very small that they do not disturb people, but they contain 50 different materials and are also critical materials. So, it is important and valuable to get them back into the cycle.”
But people don’t realise they have a responsibility to returning them, and also have concerns regarding data protection, she commented. “But it is very important to get all these devices back into the loop. This is also something Fairphone focuses on because we want these resources to be reused.”
As far as the sensitivity of the public or government action is concerned, Europe is probably the best way to be, said Dr. Thomas Papageorgiou, Compliance Manager, Anamet Recycling Industry SA. The circular economy is probably the hottest topic at the moment, but on the other hand, “we have reached a point where we have to be very careful,” he stated. The sensitivity is there but maybe they were heading toward overregulation, he pointed out. “Apart from the relevant directives governing WEEE in Europe, there are standards that the companies need to follow. The material is characterised as waste, which means it goes under specific rules and there are already discussions about banning exports of scrap or restricting movement of scrap. These are issues that affect the industry and we need to be careful.”
The fact that in Europe electrical and electronic equipment are actually traded together, it requires a lot of energy for a company to deal with all these things, said Papageorgiou. “The investments are huge, and we will reach a point where there may not be too much space especially for small and medium enterprises in the area. Especially considering the energy required, the regulations and the restrictions that one has to deal with, I think we need to step back a little bit, see what’s going on and try to make the best out of this,” he emphasised, also expressing hope that “we have not crossed the point where there are more burdens than benefits.”
In many parts of the world, especially developing countries, the informal sector plays a major role in e-scrap recycling. What are the companies or governments doing to try to close the gap between the informal sector and the highly regulated and capital intensive formal sector?
“I think for the next few years we need to work closely with the informal sector. Actually, they have a very organised network of procuring this material through connections, just through their historical presence in the market,” said Reid. They take these people under the umbrella and attempt to cascade down the best practices and work with them in the long term, he remarked. “Unfortunately these people basically work for sustenance. Some of them make good profit, but they are generally led by a very organised informal business market.” Going forward, he said they have to raise awareness and integrate the informal sector with the formal sector, “and we have to do it with a soft touch.”
It is difficult for the industry to deal with the informal sector all by itself, said Papageorgiou. Even if they identify the informal sector or try to communicate and initiate some business with them, taxwise they do not exist. “So, any kind of negotiation or business between the formal and informal sector would require a more flexible framework of operation because as things are now, it is practically impossible to tackle this.”
Jain said in India they have adopted a model where they have formalised these people. The informal sector is good at collection, and they are asking them to sell the material to the formal sector at a certain price which is convenient for them, and that they don’t have to process it themselves, he explained. Thus, the informal sector collects the material from the doorsteps of the consumers and brings it to the formalised units for treatment.
“This was possible only after the introduction of EPR norms and we are drawing them into the taxable structure.” As part of the producer responsibility organisation (PRO), he said they were the first company in India to be registered as a PRO for e-scrap collection and recycling. “As part of your responsibility as a PRO, you have to formalise these aggregators and we are making them accountable for every transaction. They are giving us proof of organic collection, which we have to check as an organisation helping the producers. So I think all of that is being done now.” Earlier 95 percent was going to the informal sector and at present it stands at 85 percent due to the collaboration between the formal and informal sector, he stated.
Kleinmagd strongly agreed stating that this is one of the issues that Fairphone has also identified. “We see it as an opportunity to improve something there, because there are millions of people dependent on the informal sector.” This is a polluting activity and is hazardous for people that work in this segment, and it is a reality that smartphones, etc. get exported either illegally or as second-hand products to countries where the e-waste is later processed mostly in the informal sector, she stressed. They collaborate with a partner ‘Closing the Loop’ where they use people from the informal sector to collect phones and then ship them back to Europe “for responsible recycling” so that the livelihood for people still remains in place, but the recycling process is less polluting, Kleinmagd remarked.
In Clews’ view, EPR is the way forward and there is a need to engage the informal sector. “The only way to engage them is through financial incentives. So it’s about paying the right price for the material and if you can do that they will give it to you.” The challenge they have with EPR systems is the definition of who the producers are, he said. “There are a large number of stakeholders and it becomes a bit unclear.” One has to rely on people reporting on how much electronics they are bringing in and the data is not really accurate. “I’d much rather see the OEM’s themselves be identified as the producer. The manufacturers are used to dealing with the EPR systems, have the capability and the business interests to be part of that system, so they could pay into the system,” he underscored.
Talking about the amount of material that still needs to be exported after reuse or processing locally, Jain said this is a problem as export has been restricted and no licences have been issued in India for a few years now for export of PCBs. “This is only in the case of precious metal recovery, which applies to PCBs and other expensive material.” At present there are some home grown technologies that are being introduced, he underscored. “We have developed a technology locally with the ministry of electronics and we are the first industrial partner for this initiative. With this technology we are able to extract gold, silver and copper in an efficient manner.” Due to the conscious effort of the government, the sector has been forced to set up precious metals recovery units and the government is encouraging it with subsidies to some extent, he added.
Clews said one of the biggest challenges is that though the collection rates are high, there is very little capacity to treat this waste stream in Nigeria. Hinckley was one of the first companies to export li-ion batteries out of the country in line with the Basel Convention, he said. “Not many companies would be willing to do that as there is no economic sense in it.” Add to the fact that the prices of many materials in the market are inflated, there is little incentive to open up the capacity to do it locally, he stated. But there is a great opportunity for Nigeria as there is a lot of scrap and second hand goods coming into the country from various sources, he said, adding that the valuable materials are exported and local capacity building needs to take place to change this. “But before that investment happens, there needs to be incentives for those investors.”
Kleinmagd said at present they take back their phones including batteries, but they also offer battery spare parts so it’s very easy to replace the batteries in their phones. Whatever they take back is “responsibly recycled in Europe” she added.
In terms of sustainable circular outcome, Jain said India has a great second-hand market for electronics. There is a growing awareness on various issues and people are looking for alternative solutions not just for disposing of the end-of-life products, but for alternative energy sources as well, he stressed.
In general Europe leads the way and everyone is looking at EU to see what they are doing in terms of sustainability, Papageorgiou opined. For instance, awareness is high among the people and they are well aware of various issues not only concerning end of life materials, but while purchasing they also look at the labels, certifications, etc. and buy sustainable products, he commented.
Nigeria is one of the largest markets, but unfortunately it is also “one of the markets for dumping of e-scrap,” said Clews referring to illegal exports of second-hand e-waste to African countries from Europe. But there is an opportunity, especially in a place that has high unemployment rates where many young people are looking to earn a living, he stated. “If we could embrace the informal sector, work with them and try to formalise them, and try to expand this green economy while working hand in hand with the government to try and implement EPR practices, plus with the right tonnages, you will see many recyclers like Hinckley wanting to operate there and you will see the market mature and develop further.” They also need to look at what has worked in other countries and learn from them, he said. “The future is looking bright and hopefully Hinckley will be playing a key role in it.”
The second International WEEE & Battery Recycling Virtual Conference held in November was organised by Waste & Recycling Middle East and Africa, and the event offered presentations and live interactive panel discussions examining ITAD opportunities, advances in e-scrap and battery recycling technology, boosting circularity and more.