Waste is a global problem and, annually, 50 million metric tonnes (MT) of that continually increasing total now comes from unwanted, discarded electronic devices, commonly known as ‘E-waste.’

This massive stream of electronic equipment waste continually expands as consumers frequently change their electronic goods, and literally millions of these products are discarded each year, and perceived to be obsolete when, in reality, they could be repaired, resold, or recycled.

The problem of E-waste is particularly acute in countries like China, India and Africa, and the GCC countries, as wealthy consumers buy increasing amounts of digital technology such as televisions, fridges, microwaves, laptops and cell phones.

One of the ironies of this vast production of ‘e-waste’ is that a great many of these devices are made in China, shipped around the globe at an increased cost to the environment, and then sent back to illegal dumping grounds in the country of their creation.

The rapid economic growth in GCC countries over the past 20 years, and the consequent spread of wealth, has contributed to this generation of E-waste in the GCC.

In 2016, E-waste accounted for 8% of the entire total of municipal waste in the GCC, and that number is expected to increase substantially in accordance with global trends. In 2016, consumers worldwide threw away 48.9mn MT of electrical and electronic goods, and a recent UN initiative predicts that this figure will rise by a third by the end of 2017.

It is expected that the GCC countries will produce 120mn MT of waste annually by 2020, rising from 94mn MT in 2015. This has forced governments and other organizations in the GCC to examine and draft policies for handling such large amounts of waste electronic products.

This does pose extreme challenges, but also provides unique opportunities to governments, companies and other organizations to innovate and come up with know-how in the areas of waste segregation, recycling and disposal.

Regional scenario

The primary method of solid waste disposal in most countries around the world is landfill burial, and this often happens without any effective treatment or environmentally sensitive protection measures.

A report released in 2014 by United Nations University (UNU) states that Qatar’s domestic E-waste generation per person was 16.3 kilograms (kg), this is vast when compared to the global average of 5.9 kg per person, although in absolute terms the amount is only 32,000 MT because of Qatar’s relatively smaller population. In reality, the United States (7.1 mn MT) and China (6mn MT) are primarily responsible for almost a third of the world’s 41.8mn MT of total e-waste on an annual basis.

Table 1 summarizes E-waste generation in GCC countries.

Country

 

Population

(Million)

Per capita E-waste (kg) Total

(Thousand tons)

Bahrain 1.2 12.9 15
Kuwait 4 17.2 69
Oman 3.3 14 46
Qatar 2 16.3 32
Saudi Arabia 30 12.5 378
United Arab Emirates 5.9 17.2 101
Total E-waste in GCC 642

Table 1 : GCC E-waste generation in 2014 (Blade et al, 2015)

Why recycle E-waste?

“E-waste, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), is the term used to describe old, end of life, or discarded appliances that use electricity or batteries”

Studies have shown that E-waste is 10 times more harmful than ordinary domestic and commercial waste. Furthermore, the extremes of heat in the climates of the GCC countries poses a more specific challenge, as it considerably accelerates the degradation of electronic equipment.

In an interview with BQ Magazine, Stephen Phelan, Managing Director, Middle East at Sims Recycling Solutions, shared his thoughts on, among other topics, the benefits of recycling E-waste, the business opportunities in the sector, the current market situation, and the challenges for the sector moving forward.

As Stephen states: “E-waste, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), is the term used to describe old, end of life, or discarded appliances that use electricity or batteries.”

As stated, E-waste is often mixed with many other types of wastes and finally disposed of in landfill sites, many of which are often illegal. Stephen warns that E-waste contains many harmful raw materials that are harmful to the environment, including lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and brominated flame retardant.

He goes on to add: “If these were simply dumped in a landfill they would soon become a toxic time bomb by leeching into the surrounding environment and contaminating the soil and water table. These contaminants, poisons and toxins would eventually migrate into the human food and water chain, and end up inside all of us. The health effects upon humans can be devastating – research has linked tumors, cancers and mental health disorders to many of these metals.”

Consequently, the effective, safe and rigorous recycling of E-waste would not only provide a solution to this pressing health problem – it could be seen as vital to our own survival. Also, recycling often recovers valuable materials from old electronics that can be used to make new products. As Stephen says: “Commodities such as steel, copper, aluminum, gold and plastics can be recovered and refined to be used again in remanufacturing processes to produce new products.”

However, he warns that effective compliance with international standards regarding recycling must be a major consideration. For example, as he points out: “We have seen operations that openly burn electrical cables to remove the rubber and plastic coating to recover copper. Obviously, these methods create a far larger environmental problem, and are very dangerous to people nearby who may be exposed to toxic fumes.”

Business opportunities

The electronics recycling business is becoming increasingly important as volumes of e-waste continue to grow. There are many excellent business opportunities as the market becomes receptive to newer trends, and a great deal of potential for new concepts to create powerful businesses and generate immense investment returns.

Stephen believes that every country can gain from developing these opportunities in E-waste recycling, and this is especially true in the GCC. As he says:  “With every country there are opportunities. The physical recycling of e-waste is only one (and the least commercially valuable) revenue stream. There are value-added services, such as onsite data destruction, and compliance reporting with serial number capture for ISO reporting purposes for corporates that can add to the bottom line. Also, there is the reuse option – the refurbishing and remarketing of products which can be far more profitable to a recycling operation.”

To ensure that e-waste recycling businesses are profitable, a number of issues have to be addressed. As Stephen suggests: “E-Waste recycling is a volume-based business and can only be economically viable with high tonnages running through the recycling facility to reduce the overall cost per ton. For example, globally last year, we recycled over 735,000 metric tons of e-waste and handled over 5.5mn IT assets.”

He goes on to add: “An industrial scale processing facility that fully complies with international standards and regulations would need to secure the vast majority of the material in each country and work with local government entities and municipalities to initiate collection and consolidation schemes to ensure success.”

“Globally, only 15% to 20% of total E-waste is recycled. And researchers estimate that only 5% of the E-waste generated in the Middle East is taken to recycling facilities”

Globally, only 15% to 20% of total E-waste is recycled. And researchers estimate that only 5% of the E-waste generated in the Middle East is taken to recycling facilities. Stephen believes that Qatar offers a greater opportunity for E-waste recycling business simply because of the higher purchasing habit of residents there. According to a 2013 survey report by ictQATAR, the average Qatari household has five mobile phones (nine mobile phones per household where Qatari nationals reside), more than three laptops, and at least one desktop computer.

The country’s growing population continues to expand its user base of electronic products, which means increased levels of waste, and more business opportunities in E-waste recycling. As Stephen highlights: “The biggest advantage that Qatar has is its population’s higher purchasing power which equates to a higher quality of material which is usually upgraded more frequently. I would expect to find more valuable material which can be refurbished and resold in Qatar than some other parts of the region.”

Lack of advanced facilities

“There are some very compliant organizations that do the right thing, but they are competing with traders who do not have the expertise to process E-waste in the right way. They just buy and sell and do not worry about what happens next”

In fact, there are not many advanced recycling facilities operating in the Middle East region. Apart from a lack of funding and advanced technology, the lack of proper legislation makes it difficult to set up an E-waste recycling plant here.

Commenting on the current state of recycling facilities in the GCC, Stephen reveals that: “There are many e-waste recyclers throughout the GCC. Some official, some not so official, What I mean, is that there are some very compliant organizations out there that do the right thing, but they are competing with traders who do not have the expertise to process E-waste in the right way. They just buy and sell and do not worry about what happens next.”

And regarding Qatar’s recycling facilities, he says: “I know of only one company operating in Qatar that is recycling part of the E-waste stream. They are focusing on IT products and cell phones. Unfortunately these products make up only 25% of the total e-waste stream.”

In this part of the world, the process of purchasing many IT products is put up for tender, and the company that follows the rules and places compliance, security and the health of its employees and community first, will often find it very difficult to compete with traders who invest nothing in these core ethics, as their operating costs are far less.

Current challenges in the E-waste sector

The E-waste sector in the GCC has faced many difficulties over the past few years, as uncertainties and fluctuations in the foreign exchange as well as commodity markets have caused recyclers many different problems.

According to Stephen the largest obstacle at the moment is that products are becoming far smaller and far more complex to recycle than ever. As he says: “A few years ago, it was a very simple process to remove a battery from a cell phone. Today, the batteries are firmly fixed in place and they must be removed before being run through a shredder as some types of battery have a very bad habit of catching fire and exploding while running through your shredding line.”

And he points out another challenge related to developing technologies: “Manufacturers have found new methods to create devices that require less high value metals in the manufacturing process. An older cell phone would have a far larger content of gold and copper than the newer models. In a nutshell, lower metal prices, fluctuating currencies, more complex and labor-intensive processes to recycle products and lower high-grade metal content in the recycled material has impacted the e-waste sector globally.”

These factors, and others have led E-waste recyclers to diversify their revenue streams and introduce value-added services such as certified data destruction.

The way forward

“The management and implementation of E-waste procedures in the GCC will therefore require a thorough overhaul to lessen environmental impacts and realize or increase investment yields and profits”

The exposure of countries in the GCC to the personal and environmental damage from this massive expansion in the production of E-waste is very similar to other countries worldwide. However, nations like Qatar do not possess the infrastructure, institutional will, business expertise, or legal facilities to effectively address the challenges posed by ever-increasing E-waste.

The management and implementation of E-waste procedures in the GCC will therefore require a thorough overhaul to lessen environmental impacts and realize or increase investment yields and profits. To create and foster successful E-waste management programs, brand new regulations need to be created and enforced, and practices introduced that conform to the highest global standards.

More importantly, an increased amount of research and development needs to be carried out to obtain reliable and accurate figures concerning the total amounts of E-waste generated in GCC countries. As part of this research and development, more ways in which businesses can reclaim and reuse precious materials from waste devices in an ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly way must also be examined. Schemes that may engender connections between designers, manufacturers, recycling and disposal companies must be forged in the context of these examinations.

Finally, a more correct realization of the toxic potential of E-waste must be accompanied not only by better handling of such waste, but a broader awareness of its potential value to businesses, organizations and individuals. On an individual level, consumers who are unwilling to keep a product when the latest model emerges must be made aware that the item may not only still be functional, but that the ethical choice must be to have that item resold or recycled.

The residents of Qatar, just like other countries, need to be shown that their appetite for the latest electronic gadgets can produce a thriving recycling industry, and this should be accompanied by efficient methods of collection, and the creation of state-of-the-art recycling plants. This will open the door for further expansion of the E-waste sector whilst helping to minimize the environmental impact of the sector.

All these measures will, in the long term, contribute to further economic expansion of Qatar and provide further opportunities to create more jobs and more profits in a sustainable, environmentally responsible way. In an ever-changing world, the need to possess the latest electronic product or gadget can be accompanied by a growing realization that we can recycle our present possessions to ensure a safer and more prosperous future.


This article is from BQ Magazine’s Issue 42 – March 2017.

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