E-waste in the MENA Region
By Assia Tej
We buy them, use them, break or replace them, and finally throw them away. This is the cycle of electronic devices, the revolutionary gadgets that made our life easier and the recycling process harder. It is an undeniable fact that nowadays the waste from electronic devices, known as “e-waste”, has reached unparalleled levels and presents increasing new obstacles to recycling.
Statistically, only 15 to 20 percent of e-waste ends up being recycled globally. In the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region, this is significantly lower, approaching only 5 percent. The rest of the waste is dumped into landfills or thrown in scrap yards and warehouses.
The global situation is overtly alarming, and the lack of information or media attention on the subject is only exacerbating the matter. The problem is exceedingly apparent when it comes to sorting. Despite the fact that e-waste is just as environmentally devastating and pollutive as plastic, it is not included in primary recycling systems. As many countries in the MENA region have no centrally established waste-sorting systems, any hope for short-term improvement in their dealing with e-waste seems futile.
In countries where recycling is not yet a habit and where environmental concerns are far behind, the question remains as to how this new type of pollution will be handled by governments?
E-waste as a new profitable business
Recycling stations for electronic devices does not yet exist in the MENA region for the simple reason that it requires expensive and specialised equipment. However, the establishment of such stations would not only create a much-needed breather from increasing pollution, but it would also generate new opportunities for employment. The road to improvement would require significant financial support, which to this date has been absent from any government plans. Any attempts to recycle e-waste manually would present a huge health risk, as it may be submerged in toxic acids.
Investment in recycling is hindered by the inability of some governments to cover the costs. “Cost recovery is partially implemented in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon (Zahlé only) and the Palestinian Territory; in Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen and Mauritania costs cannot be recovered by the services. In Egypt and in Jordan, cost recovery arrangements are made through the electricity bills.” But what if recycling started to benefit the economy? Many electronic devices, such as computers and phones, contain quantities of precious metal such as gold, silver and platinum, that could be extracted in special stations and be given another life.
Unfortunately, this new type of pollution is largely being disregarded by populations and no further action is taken by citizens to demand and ensure the restriction of e-waste. Meanwhile, old electronics are laying neglected in unsuitable locations, as their potential continues to be overlooked.
In the UK and Europe, companies like Apple offer financial compensation for the return of their old electronics. Discounts up to 500£ have been issued on new products in exchange for the recovery of older models. This initiative encourages people not to dump their old devices and allows companies to benefit from the reuse of worn ones. In the end, this process creates a new kind of business while being careful of environmental matters.
Some initiatives have been undertaken by governments but there is a still a long road towards the establishment of a more complete recycling infrastructure and legislation. In Morocco, civil society played a significant role in demanding efficient e-waste solutions although overall, in the MENA region, the driving force comes from the private sector and cooperation with national and local governments.
With the assistance of the private sector, governments of various countries, such as Egypt, have addressed the need for recycling and “recycling programs” for end-of-life products, most of which are multinational companies such as Nokia or Dell.
However, national legislation is still very poor regarding e-waste. “An important legislative measure is the passage of a law on the recycling of mobile phones in the UAE. Morocco has been looking into embarking on a national e waste management strategy, although the present legal and recycling infrastructure is not yet adequate for it. Qatar’s telecom operator, Qtel, is in the process of drafting a law on e waste management, which is supposed to be completed by the end of 2010.” Further initiatives have been noted but nothing very determinative has emerged.
There is still a lack of a comprehensive regional e-waste strategy, and much work remains to be done at the national level. The national level requires a more extensive and process-oriented e-waste management policy, strategy and implementation plan than what is provided by individual initiatives. E-waste recycling is a high-tech industry and will require more investment and management processes than are currently available.
In the end, what is needed is a global mediatization of the phenomenon that is strong enough to push governments to review their policies regarding e-waste. This sector is a den of treasures capable of making a huge change all over the globe so investment is worth the try.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.