Thanks to rapid changes in technology and falling prices, millions of tons of high-tech electronic devices are becoming obsolete in the developed nations every year, making e-waste one of the top environmental challenges of the 21st century.
Electronic waste (e-waste) is defined as what remains of mobile phones, computers, personal stereos, fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs, as well as large household appliances such as television sets, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners and more.
Speaking at the Earth Innovation Forum on September 5 in Tallinn, Estonia, Paolo Falcioni, Director General of Home Appliance Europe, said, "Five million tonnes of electronic equipment in Europe is generated as e-waste. Out of the five million, four million tonnes of the e-waste is recycled. Of those, 3.5 million tonnes become secondary raw materials. The rest of the e-waste is not traced."
It is probable that this untraced waste ends up in Africa. An article published by the Environmental Health Perspectives shows that each month 100,000 used personal computers arrive at the Nigerian port of Lagos alone. Ghana also faces challenges in managing the e-waste imported. E-waste generally ends up in landfills, the largest one being in Agbogbloshie, a commercial district near the centre of Accra.
E-waste management has become a major challenge facing many African countries because of lack of awareness, environmental legislation and limited financial resources. Open dumping, burning and landfilling are the predominant disposal methods used in Africa, with potential serious implications for human health and the environment.
Heavy metals and other hazardous substances found in electronics contaminate groundwater and pose other environmental and public health risks. Computers contain heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury, brominated flame-retardants, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and sometimes Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).
Modern electronics can contain up to 60 different chemical elements including base metals such as copper and tin, special metals such as cobalt, indium and antimony, and precious metals like silver, gold and palladium. Although some chemicals present in electronic components are hazardous, many have economic value.
Precious metals such as gold can be extracted from mobile phones, as each one contains an element of this precious metal. There is untapped potential in Africa in recycling mobile phone elements in this way, with most of the projects being based in developed countries.
Beside metals, mobile phones also contain valuable materials such as plastics, glass and ceramics. With the creation of a circular economy, these waste materials could be turned into secondary raw materials that can be used as valuable inputs in different companies. Such recycling opens a great opportunity for innovation, increased productivity and economic growth.
New and innovative solutions are needed to integrate the informal e-waste recycling sector across the continent into sound sustainable e-waste management strategies. Recycling would have a positive impact on metal resources hence protecting the environment from unsustainable mining.
The Ghanaian government has taken a significant step towards the proper management of e-waste. The construction of an integrated e-waste recycling facility, at Agbogbloshie, is scheduled for October this year. One of the components of the project is the establishment of a network of collection centres to provide a continuous supply of raw materials to sustain the operations of the facility. This ambitious project is expected to create over 22,000 self-sustaining jobs for Ghanaian youth.
Key trading associations will be funded to support research in academic and research institutions. The funds will be used to offer incentives for collection, transportation and disposal of electrical waste, and promote public education on the safe disposal of electrical and electronic waste, and on the negative effects of electronic waste.
The Ghana project shows the potential for investment in Africa in waste management. Investing in technology and education is essential to build capacity in Africa to effectively manage e-waste and bring forth innovative solutions in e-waste management. Building capacity also supports policymakers in enforcing legislation that ensures that e-waste is properly disposed of, and that recycling is done in a manner that protects the environment.
Through its Switch Africa Green project in Ghana, UN Environment, jointly with the Environmental Protection Agency and in partnership with Ghana National Cleaner Production Centre, implemented a project on electronic waste and developed the Ghana e-waste model that formed the basis for the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Act (2016). This led to the Government of Ghana to prepare for the setup of an e-waste recycling plant at Agbogbloshie.
UN Environment continues to support African governments to tackle the issue of e-waste management. Value in e-waste can be extracted in a way that supports the local economy and protects people's health and the environment.