[FILES] E-waste. Photo: DUTABLE
Electronic waste (e-waste) is considered one of the rapidly growing problems in today’s world, due to its high rate of generation and its hazardous composition.
E-waste contains harmful substances with the potential to cause adverse human health and environmental impact if it is improperly managed. Also significant is its high rate of generation associated with advancement in technology, availability, and widespread use of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE).
According to the 2020 Global e-waste monitor launched in July, 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of e-waste was generated globally in 2019. This is a growth rate of approximately 20% over the 44.7Mt generated in 2016 and an approximately 28% growth rate of the 41.8Mt generated in 2014.
The volume of space that this waste stream occupies pales into insignificance when compared with the fact that only 17.4% of the 53.16Mt generated was officially documented as properly collected and recycled. When e-waste is not channelled through appropriate collection and recycling platforms, it is disposed of off with municipal solid waste and a large percentage of it ends up in landfills or dumpsites and eventually in the hands of informal recyclers who employ crude recycling practices to harvest the valuable components and this brings about the release of toxic and hazardous substances such as mercury, lead, brominated flame retardants (BFR), chlorofluorocarbons(CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) into the environment. These substances have a harmful effect on human health, mercury, for example, has the potential to enter the food chain and accumulate in living organisms damaging the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs, immune system, CFCs and HCFCs can bring about skin cancers, eye-related diseases, and a weakening of the immune system, while lead can cause anemia, weakness, kidney and brain damage.
The percentage of e-waste collected and recycled formally in relation to the volume generated in Nigeria is even more alarming. In 2019, 461,300 tonnes of e-waste was generated with only 0.4% (1,845.2kg) collected and recycled through proper documented channels. The outstanding 459,454.8 tonnes generated is unaccounted and undoubtedly a very sizeable portion of this is in the hands of informal recyclers undergoing different crude practices such as burning plastic cables, acid leaching, hammering, and other common methods to reclaim valuable metals from the discarded electronics.
E-waste in itself is not a problem, rather it possesses great circular economy potential; it is a repository of valuable materials that should serve as secondary raw materials for the production of new EEE or other products. This is the very reason why informal handlers are constantly seeking it. The value of selected raw materials contained in the 53.6 Mt of e-waste generated in 2019 was estimated to be worth approximately $57 billion USD. Mining materials from e-waste also reduces continuous extraction of new materials and its attendant global warming effect. This process also has the potential to create decent jobs for people in the collection, refurbishment, and recycling value chain.
Arrangements to fully realize the potential of the opportunities within the e-waste value chain and avoid health and environmental crisis associated with improper e-waste management activities are in place in Nigeria. A National regulation (National Environmental (Electrical/Electronic Sector) Regulations, 2011 SI No 23) which adopted the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principle and delineates appropriately the responsibility for the management of e-waste on the Producers is in place. This regulation mandates all Producers of various brands of EEE products to subscribe to the EPR Programme, including the Buy Back for their sector within two years. To provide clarity and direction on the implementation of the EPR Principle, an EPR guideline was developed by the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) in 2014. This guideline brought the concept of EPR home, allocating roles, and obligations to everyone and assisting all to see that waste management is a collective responsibility. It also helped to identify Producers as anyone responsible for manufacturing, assembling, importing, or distributing EEE on a professional basis on behalf of themselves or on behalf of another organization that is not registered to make such sale in Nigeria.
In practice, what does this mean for the Nigerian EEE sector? It requires that all who manufacture, assemble, or import EEE must take responsibility for their products when they are no longer functional. Tracking products from the moment they are purchased to when they are non-functional can be a challenge for a Producer because that is not their core area of competence. To ensure that Nigerian Producers can effectively fulfill this obligation, an industry-led EPR approach was adopted. This approach requires that Producers collectively pool resources based on their market share and coordinate the collection and recycling of their products in a cost-effective but environmentally sound manner.
In response to that regulation and guideline, the E-waste Producer Responsibility Organization of Nigeria (EPRON) was incorporated in March 2018 to achieve collective compliance to the regulation and transparently use dedicated funds for the environmentally sound management of end of life EEE. EPRON became operational in 2019 with a very competent Board and robust advisory council comprising of relevant Stakeholder Organizations including NESREA, Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON), Nigeria Custom Service (NCS), Registered Recyclers, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), National Association of Scrap and Waste Dealers Employers of Nigeria (NASWDEN), United Nation Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP).
Formal recyclers and collectors are set to work with EPRON to carry out activities downstream and transition resources away from the illegal and hazardous practices prevalent in Nigerian society. Two Government accredited recyclers: Hinckley Recycling Associates and E-Terra Technologies have been registered to carry out environmentally sound recycling. The verification process for potential collectors who will act as receptacles for e-waste from the hands of consumers and informal collectors is ongoing. To ensure that activities are conducted with utmost competence, transparency and according to international best practice, EPRON joined the WEEEForum earlier this year. The WEEEForum is an international association of forty not-for-profit waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) producer responsibility organisations (PRO).
It is the world’s largest multi-national centre of competence as regards the management of e-waste.
Across all fronts, the channel for environmental sound management of e-waste is ready; to transition the sector from a linear to a circular economy; to convert informal handlers to formality; to ensure that the contamination of the environment and adverse effect on human health due to environmentally unsound practices stop, however low Producer participation is slowing down the commencement of active collection and recycling. As it is in all PROs, subscription of Producers to the EPRON platform is the critical success factor for the EPR scheme in this sector, an industry-led arrangement necessitates the buy-in of all Producers.
Partial subscriptions will result in active producers funding the collection and recycling of e-waste generated from inactive Producers. This free-riding on the part of inactive Producers will give them undue advantage over the active ones. Repeated efforts including private engagements and newspaper notifications have been issued by NESREA to create awareness and encourage participation by these Producers. Consequently, the next step should be the enforcement of sanctions.
The environmentally sound management of electronic waste is a very critical issue and it is intricately linked to the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is primarily linked to the SDG 12 on sustainable consumption & production as well as SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth. However, the achievement of SDG 3 on good health and well-being, SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, and SDG 14 on life below water can only be realized if there is a transition from crude recycling practices to environmentally sound management of electronic waste.
While we await future statistics on e-waste generation from Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), we have numerous reasons to believe that the rate of generation of e-waste will continue to increase. For one technology has indeed come to the rescue during this pandemic, providing the platform for schools, organizations, religious organizations to carry on with their endeavours remotely. This means the increased purchase of hardware and upgrade of existing ones to fit the technological needs and personal desires of users. Population growth and the widening of the middle class are other factors that will increase the need for EEE. Invariably this will result in the generation of more electronic waste. A 2018 report from Brookings Scholars estimated that by 2030, the population of the global middle class is set to reach 5.3 billion and many emerging nations including Nigeria will look for increased prosperity.
If Nigeria is going to protect the health of her Citizens as well as transition successfully to a circular economy in this sector and contribute to the achievement of the identified SDGs, then a paradigm shift is required from the EEE Producers. Producers must respond to the e-waste challenge and fulfill this statutory responsibility. Consumers on their part need to take an active interest in the topic and ask questions about the fate of each of the EEE they have purchased at its end of life. More importantly regulatory enforcement needs to be graduated to the appropriate level to drive compliance amongst Producers.