Coalition formed at WEF to curb $62.5bn e-waste woes

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo
Johannesburg, 24 Jan 2019
According to UN, less than 20% of e-waste is recycled formally.
According to UN, less than 20% of e-waste is recycled formally.

Seven United Nations (UN) entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system.

The aim is to support international efforts to address electronic waste (e-waste) challenges.

The entities call for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries.

According to the UN, each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste are discarded; the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth $62.5 billion, which is more than the GDP of most countries, it adds.

Informal losses

The UN notes that less than 20% of this is recycled formally. Informally, it says, millions of people worldwide (over 600 000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment.

The report, "A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot", launched in Davos today, says technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of things (IOT) support gradual "dematerialisation" of the electronics industry.

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacturer or retailer take-back programmes.

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential for future production.

If the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide, it adds.

The report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes: International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UN Environment Programme (UN Environment), UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), United Nations University (UNU) and Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions.

The coalition is supported by the WBCSD and WEF, and co-ordinated by the Secretariat of the Environment Management Group.

Considerable work is being done on the ground, says the coalition. For example, in order to grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian government, Global Environment Facility and UN Environment announce a $2 million investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria.

It says the new investment will leverage over $13 million in additional financing from the private sector.

According to the ILO, in Nigeria, up to 100 000 people work in the informal e-waste sector. This investment will help to create a system which formalises these workers, giving them safe and decent employment while capturing the latent value in Nigeria's 500 000 tonnes of e-waste.

UNIDO collaborates with a large number of organisations on e-waste projects, including UNU, ILO, ITU and WHO, as well as various other partners, such as Dell and the International Solid Waste Association.

In the Latin American and Caribbean region, a UNIDO e-waste project, co-funded by GEF, seeks to support sustainable economic and social growth in 13 countries. From upgrading e-waste recycling facilities, to helping to establish national e-waste management strategies, the initiative adopts a circular economy approach, while enhancing regional cooperation.

Circular economy

Another Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) report launched today by the WEF, with support from Accenture Strategy, outlines a future in which fourth industrial revolution technologies provide a tool to achieve a circular economy efficiently and effectively, and where all physical materials are accompanied by a digital dataset (like a passport or fingerprint for materials), creating an "Internet of materials".

PACE is a collaboration mechanism and project accelerator hosted by the WEF which brings together 50 leaders from business, government and international organisations to collaborate in moving towards the circular economy.

"ITU has been raising awareness and guiding efforts to reduce and rethink e-waste since 2011," says Houlin Zhao, secretary-general of the ITU.

"So I am delighted to see that a movement to promote a circular economy for electronics is now gaining ground. Together, with newly created partnerships such as the United Nations E-waste Coalition, we can transform waste into wealth, and deliver development benefits to all."

"A circular economy brings with it tremendous environmental and economic benefits for us all. UN Environment is proud to support this innovative partnership with the government of Nigeria and the Global Environment Facility, and support the country's efforts to kick-start a circular electronics system. Our planet's survival will depend on how well we retain the value of products within the system by extending their life," says Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of UN Environment.