The world is awash in e-waste. Nearly 50 million metric tons of electronic refuse is produced annually, according to the United Nations University's Solving the E-waste Problem (Step) Initiative. That number is expected to top 65 million metric tons by 2017, as more people buy and replace cellphones, televisions, computers and other electronic devices.
Much of the waste ends up in landfills, where lead, arsenic and other dangerous materials pollute the air and water supply. The problem is drawing the attention of many global organizations, which are beginning to make e-waste management a core part of their sustainable project portfolio. Initiatives include reducing waste in their own operations and creating recycling programs.
But companies can't solve the e-waste problem alone, says Ruediger Kuehr, PhD, head of the sustainable cycles operating unit at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, Bonn, Germany, and executive secretary of the Step Initiative. “E-waste is an issue that must be addressed collaboratively, by multiple stakeholders,” he says. The best projects require government agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), scientists, manufacturers and companies to work together to address a community's unique needs. “Each project plan must be adapted to the local conditions of the country, the culture, domestic laws and the main products in e-waste,” Dr. Kuehr says.
To run a successful project, stakeholders must examine what kind of e-waste is generated in their community, where it comes from, how it is processed and what impact it has on the local environment. They should also consider whether any NGOs are already working to address the issue. Focused research can help validate whether a project such as building an e-waste recycling center is viable, and which local partners need to be involved.
Strategically assessing the e-waste problem can also help organizations identify innovative project opportunities. For instance, in 2014 IBM, a PMI Global Executive Council member, partnered with an Indian research firm on a pilot project to design and build adapted power packs from discarded laptop batteries. The project team found that 70 percent of the batteries had enough power to keep an LED light on more than four hours a day for a year.
The final product, dubbed UrJars, provides a cheap lighting solution for the approximately 400 million people in India who live off the grid, Vikas Chandan, PhD, a research scientist at IBM Research India's smarter energy group who led the project, told MIT Technology Review. His team estimates that UrJars, including an LED light and mobile charger, can be produced for INR600 each—less than half the cost of a typical rechargeable lighting device in the country. “The most costly component in these systems is often the battery,” Dr. Chandan said. “In this case, the most expensive part of your storage solution is coming from trash.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF IBM RESEARCH INDIA
E-waste projects are also creating job opportunities in developing countries. When PMI Global Executive Council member Hewlett-Packard partnered on a large-scale e-waste recycling project in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013, the company helped train locals to run the e-waste collection points as businesses. And it hopes to use that project plan as a blueprint for a sustainable recycling system that can be replicated in other developing countries.
“E-waste is an issue that must be addressed collaboratively, by multiple stakeholders. Each project plan must be adapted to the local conditions of the country.”
—Ruediger Kuehr, PhD, United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, Bonn, Germany
From the Ground Up
In Tanzania, the Finnish and Tanzanian governments have partnered to recover e-waste materials to spur the growth of hardware businesses. Tanzania Science and Technology (TANZICT) is an e-waste recovery initiative underwritten by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs that draws technical support from U.K. not-for-profit Techfortrade. One of the program's first projects was to create a workshop at TANZICT's innovation center in the city of Dar es Salaam to teach local metalworkers how to recover materials from paper printers and scanners and use them to build 3-D printers. Thanks to the workshop and with the support of the TANZICT team, workers began building printers in January.
Nearly 50 million metric tons of electronic refuse is produced annually.
Source: United Nations University's Solving the E-waste Problem (Step) Initiative
Fortunately, easy access to bulk e-waste means the team has ample material to work with. That lowers the cost of production, which is key to the success of this project, says Jacqueline Dismas, head of TANZICT's 3-D printer development project, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “3-D printers are very expensive. If we can make them locally by accessing materials found in the country, we can provide this technology at a much lower cost,” she says. The project team was scheduled to start selling printers to the public by April, at a cost 70 percent below that of imported 3-D printers.
A comprehensive and collaborative approach to managing the rising tide of e-waste—spanning product planning, disposal and recycling—is the best way to respond to this global problem, Dr. Kuehr says. “The companies that make these products must take responsibility, and team up with other players in the industry to share information and drive projects to address this important issue.” —Sarah Fister Gale