How Africa is leading the way in dealing with ‘e-waste’

By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, Telecommunication Development Bureau, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) | March 28, 2022
  • A record 53.6 metric tonnes of e-waste – discarded electrical and electronic equipment – was generated globally in 2019, and the quantity is still rising.
  • African nations are pioneering ways of reducing e-waste, with policies, regulations and legislation.
  • Other countries should consider Africa’s experience when building an e-waste management system.

With the ICT boom has come a huge increase in discarded electrical and electronic equipment, or ‘e-waste’. A record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated around the world in 2019, and this number is on the rise. Experts predict that the annual generation of e-waste will reach 74.7 Mt by 2030. Tackling this challenge will require a concerted and coordinated effort from all the organizations and individuals across the electronics value chain. Manufacturers will need to develop a new approach, and to take responsibility for a product’s entire lifecycle.

African nations are showing the way on dealing with e-waste. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, 13 countries in Africa had an e-waste policy, legislation or regulation in place. Their efforts can be a lesson to other nations around the world looking to improve their e-waste management systems.

1. Clearly defining value chain actors

Long-term solutions to e-waste management will require a fair and economically viable approach to extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR requires that producers – such as manufacturers, importers or distributors – take responsibility for the end-of-life management of electronics sold on the market. This includes taking items back, recycling them and eventually disposing of them.

Regulation must contain clear and easy-to-understand definitions of the different e-waste stakeholders to avoid confusion. Many African countries have given definitions in their regulations covering e-waste management and EPR. For example, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa place emphasis on a person or persons – rather than on entities – introducing, importing and manufacturing electronics. This makes it more efficient to identify who must register with the associated EPR scheme. For example, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa emphasize that ‘producers’ include importers, distributors and manufacturers of electronics. This makes it efficient to identify who must register with the associated EPR scheme.

A record 53.6Mt of e-waste was generated in 2019, and the quantity is set to rise further

A record 53.6Mt of e-waste was generated in 2019, and the quantity is set to rise further Image: Global E-Waste Monitor 2020

2. Ensuring sustainable financing

The most sustainable system is one that is self-financing, which is why the role of businesses and entrepreneurs in e-waste management is essential. In Nigeria, producers help cover the cost of e-waste management – including waste collection, separation and transfer, treatment and recycling and final disposal, as well as public information and awareness campaigns and training programmes.

These manufacturers, assemblers, importers and distributors pay a fee to the not-for-profit E-waste Producer Responsibility Organisation Nigeria, ensuring shared responsibility and funding for e-waste processing. This approach also ensures the EPR scheme remains resilient.

Regulation can help protect these financing schemes. Ghana introduced an e-waste eco-levy on the import of used and end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment. The Customs Division of the Ghana Revenue Authority spearheads enforcement of the eco-levy which makes the system more resilient and ensures the cost of e-waste management remains covered.

3. Collaborating with the private sector

Several countries in Africa have chosen policy approaches that establish Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs) to implement EPR schemes. PROs provide a mechanism for producers to help them fulfil their obligations under the EPR scheme, such as providing the necessary funds to employ professional e-waste collectors and recyclers.

South Africa has adopted a PRO model across various waste streams such as lighting, electric and electronic equipment and packaging. This demonstrates how an EPR scheme can be adapted to meet the needs of different industry sectors. In Rwanda, the government has invested directly into large-scale e-waste collection and recycling by establishing a successful public-private partnership with Enviroserve, a large e-waste recycling company. Although this approach differs slightly to PROs, it has the potential to scale up and serve countries neighbouring Rwanda.

4. Enforcing the system

Streamlining enforcement for e-waste systems is also key. For example, counterfeit equipment can become e-waste much quicker due to faulty parts and non-conformity towards certain technical standards, among other things.

To combat the importation of counterfeit equipment, the Zambia Information and Communications Technologies Authority (ZICTA) enforces the responsible importation of technology equipment through type approval, which means checking that a product meets a minimum set of regulatory, technical and safety requirements.

The ZICTA works with the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) to ensure that imported technology equipment meets these standards. In addition, all licensed technology dealers in Zambia are mandated to submit annual statistics on the equipment they imported in the previous year. This helps track the amount of equipment being put on the market and forecasting the amount of e-waste likely to be generated.

The Zambian example shows the importance of collaboration among government authorities for effective enforcement. Existing processes in other countries, such as type approval for technology equipment, could be adjusted to support the control and management of this equipment towards the end of its life or use.

Lessons learned

Africa’s experience managing e-waste provides interesting approaches for all countries to consider when building an e-waste management system. Of course, continuous improvement is necessary to ensure that the e-waste management system can adapt as needed. Governments should make use of existing networks – for example, existing collection systems for other waste streams – to ensure the systems remain relevant. They must also encourage data sharing among stakeholders and establish national working groups on e-waste and EPR.

Such steps made by government help set standards for new ways of working, living and doing business. Critically, they also highlight a key message: that all stakeholders should value electronics reuse and recycling.

Learn how ITU is working to provide assistance to countries working to develop national e-waste management policy and regulation, here.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.

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