Seven United Nations (UN) entities have partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to tackle the growing problem of electronic waste, or e-waste. These organisations are calling for an overhaul of the electronics waste-handling process across the globe.
The UN and WEF are hoping to establish a systematic collaboration between major electronics brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), trade unions, civil society and waste management companies. The aim is to reduce e-waste at the source of production, as well as to refine the handling, disposal and recovery of discarded electronic components.
Estimates suggest that 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced around the world every year. This waste has a commercial value of $62.5-billion (~R812,5-billion) that could be recovered and reused in most cases. Less than 20% of this e-waste is actually recycled.
Circular value chains could be a solution to e-waste
Like the concept of a circular economy, a circular value chain entails re-adding e-waste back to the production phase of the product life cycle instead of raw materials. This new business model means that the valuable materials contained in e-waste are put to good use once again in new electronic devices.
One way to collect e-waste for the circular value chain is to introduce manufacturer or retailer take-back initiatives. The producers and sellers of electronic goods will take back the e-waste and feed the valuable materials back into the production cycle.
However, the materials obviously need to be in good working condition if they can be reused. The recycling process will also need to meet the huge demand of the electronic production cycle. It will have to be fast and efficient in order to supply the manufacturers with enough reusable components and materials to meet their output demands.
The right policy mix and proper implementation of a circular value chain will be good news for the economy. More jobs can be created in linking the end phase with the beginning phase of the product life cycle. Fewer raw materials will be required and the cost of production can be reduced as old materials are purchased from recycling ventures.
Formalising e-waste sectors across the globe
At the moment, there are millions of informal e-waste pickers operation around the world. These people collect discarded electronic goods and components and sell them to recycling facilities. By formalising the sector in every country, these workers become officially employed and it can help them to increase the volume of collected e-waste for recycling.
Formalising the sector will also encourage governments to upgrade recycling facilities to make them more capable of handling e-waste. National legislation around e-waste management strategies can be developed and it will help to slow the ever-increasing volume of electronic goods that are piling up in landfills.
The first step to addressing the problem of e-waste is acknowledging that the issue exists. The UN and its partners are on the right path to tackling e-waste and creating a global circular value chain in the industry, but this will take time.
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