E-waste – moving beyond good and evil

17.08.2010

Oeko-Institut report shows possibilities for sustainable e-waste recycling in Ghana

E-waste contains many valuable metals such as gold, silver, palladium, aluminium, steel and cooper. Recovery of aluminium, steel and copper from e-waste is an important livelihood strategy for many poor people in West Africa. However, e-waste also contains many hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and PVC. Due to a lack of recycling and waste management infrastructure, e-waste is not treated appropriately in West Africa, thereby causing huge damage to the environment, and the health of the workers and local communities. The results of a project on e-waste recycling in Ghana, carried out by Oeko-Institut on behalf of the Inspectorate of the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM-Inspectorate) and the Dutch Recycling Association (NVMP), show how e-waste can be recycled and managed in an environmentally-friendly way and how to comply with social standards at the same time.

Currently, Oeko-Institut is developing solutions for a sustainable recycling cooperation of Ghana with industrialised countries: “A partnership, which will be beneficial for all participating countries”, says Andreas Manhart, an expert on sustainable resource efficiency at Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology). Ghana can provide a comparatively low-cost workforce and an effective collection and sorting system while industrialised countries possess modern recycling technologies. If the e-waste is transferred back to the industrialised countries after the first recycling step, the highly efficient refineries there can recover up to 17 precious metals. These are important resources for high-tech industry; the primary extraction of such metals would otherwise involve high costs, environmental problems and political conflicts. Additionally, the hazardous substances can be managed in an environmentally sound way in these countries. Based on the revenues acquired from the partnership, better working conditions and investment in environmental protection and improved recycling practices can be financed in Ghana. “However the business model cannot be directly applied to all e-waste fractions”, Manhart advises. “Components such as cathode ray tubes and plastic parts can only be properly disposed of at substantial cost. Thus, the development and implementation of regulatory frameworks are indispensable in such cases”, he adds.

“E-waste recycling has become an important industry in Ghana”, says Siddharth Prakash, an expert on social standards and information and communication technologies at Oeko-Institut. “Our research suggests that about 100 to 250 million US dollars are generated each year in Ghana by the informal e-waste sector.” According to the report, in the capital Accra alone, approx. 20,000 people are engaged in refurbishing, collecting and recycling e-waste. Overall, the sector sustains – including dependents – up to 200,000 people in the country. Yet the working conditions are extremely poor: the wages are generally below the poverty line, and child labour and working days of up to 12 hours are the order of the day. On top of that there are health hazards because of the toxic fumes and heavy metals. “We have to ensure that the working conditions in the informal recycling sector in Ghana are substantially improved”, emphasizes Prakash. “Due to the use of crude recycling technologies, many important raw materials are permanently lost. Only basic metals such as aluminium, copper and steel are recovered. Fractions containing precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium are either thrown on the waste disposal sites or burnt with cables and plastic cases”, adds Prakash.

Oeko-Institut is participating in the UNEP “e-Waste Africa” project, which aims to contribute towards the elimination of illegal export of e-waste from industrialised countries. In countries like Ghana and Nigeria, not only domestically generated e-waste has to be treated, but also substantial quantities of old appliances that are being imported from industrialised countries, particularly the European Union. Therefore, a pre-requisite for a sustainable e-waste recycling is an effective monitoring system for combating the illegal trade. As even with improved local recycling structures, countries like Ghana will simply be over-burdened by the demands of proper recycling of these products. In order to improve monitoring of e-waste trade, experts at Oeko-Institut are analysing trade statistics and researching the export data of European harbours such as those of Rotterdam and Antwerp.

The study Socio-economic assessment and feasibility study on sustainable e-waste management in Ghana can be downloaded at: www.oeko.de/oekodoc/1057/2010-105-en.pdf


For further information please contact

Siddharth Prakash
Researcher, Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko-Institut e.V., Freiburg Head Office
Phone: +49-761-45295-44
Email contact

Andreas Manhart
Researcher, Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko-Institut e.V., Freiburg Head Office
Phone: +49-89-12590077
Email contact