E-waste is having a significant negative impact on Africa. With a huge market for electronic goods, many people do not consider what happens to their products once disposed of. Worldwide, we produce approximately 50m tonnes of e-waste every year. Although approximately 20% of our e-waste will be repurposed, a massive amount often ends up as landfill which is burnt, traded illegally or not disposed of effectively, leading to hazardous substances leaking into the environment. The proper disposal of e-waste remains a significant problem. Heavy metals including lead, cadmium and mercury that are usually found in fridges, LCD screens and air-conditioning units not only pollute soil and water but can enter the food chain creating a toxic mix of negative health effects.
The growing problem of e-waste in Africa
Unfortunately, a large proportion of e-waste exports go to Africa from a variety of countries which mean that this continent has a huge e-waste problem to contend with and not just of it’s own making. With European countries being the worst culprits for illegal waste loads going to developing countries, Africa is top of the list as an e-waste destination. With the exponential growth of African populations to approximately 2.5 billion by 2050 this kind of environmental issue highlights a serious concern for sustainability.
The Circular Economy
The circular economy is a relatively new concept that involves adopting strategies to ensure that the value of products and materials is sustained for as long as possible. The objective of the circular economy is that resources and waste are minimized. It also entails ensuring that when a product reaches the end of its useful life it can be recycled to create further value where possible. Not only does this mean savings and reductions in waste and pollution, but it can bring significant economic benefits and contribute to economic growth, innovation, and creation of jobs.
Although many countries in the EU and worldwide have started to adopt and implement circular economy measures, the African context offers significant scope to deliver on this kind of policies. There is a real opportunity to promote long-lasting and beneficial environmental practices including job opportunities and sustainable growth.
How Africa can adopt a circular economy
Although circular economy thinking is still at an early stage in Africa, there are many opportunities for inclusive growth. As the name suggests, this will create a circular and sustainable pattern of use and recycling through integration and innovative techniques that allow resources to be looped back into the cycle.
Adopting techniques that are already being refined in other parts of the world, the African economy could create an eco-cycle that incorporates maintenance, reuse, upcycling, repair, refurbishment and recycling. As can be witnessed from countries who already lead the way in these methods, creativity and lateral thinking are paramount to finding new ways of reducing waste. African countries often already think towards reusing electrical products, sometimes through necessity and scarcity of resources.
Backed by supportive business models and industries, harnessing the creativity and innovation of African states can already be seen in some models. Manufacturers in Africa and elsewhere have started to consider how their products are designed and what resources they are using that could be recycled and reused later down the line.
Another area of growth has been the production of more facilities for safe destruction of waste which dramatically reduces the devastating environmental consequences of e-waste. Waste to energy is another growth area, so there is cause for some optimism going forward if these models can be replicated on a much larger scale.
Scaling up for the future
Therefore, although there is no specific framework in place in Africa at present regarding the circular economy, there are gradual pockets of good practice breaking out. This is creating a shift across the African continent with more awareness of the detrimental effects of e-waste products and a move to find solutions to the e-waste problem.
It is hoped that in time a complete culture change will take effect leading to a focus on policies to future-proof Africa. As the effects of pollution and particularly e-waste become more widely known, the need to protect people and economies from the ravages of toxic waste coupled with the need to maximise resources needs to become a matter of urgent priority for both the public and private sector in Africa.