“We don’t need to own the mobile phone we use for work”

Around the world, electronic waste is piling up. Dr Rüdiger Kühr, co-author of the Global E-waste Monitor and director of the Sustainable Cycles Programme at the United Nations University in Bonn, shares some ideas on how we can stop this from happening.

Mr Kühr, you were involved in a project in Lagos that looked at the situation of people who strip down our electronic waste. What’s the idea behind it?

Rüdiger Kühr: We assigned a colleague from Nigeria, in cooperation with the authorities, to explore over two years what happens when e-waste – from, say, the Port of Hamburg – arrives in the country. His job was to compile reliable figures on how much waste arrives there in the first place. We found out that 5 to 10 percent of German e-waste is exported – often because used cars, trucks or buses were crammed full of electronic waste before they were exported. Nowadays, that’s not so easy to do anymore.

That was about ten years ago. Back then, there were images of people digging through the rubbish with their bare hands and burning scrap to get at the raw materials. Whole neighbourhoods were filled with smoke. Has the situation improved?

The images you’re alluding to are from a lagoon in Ghana. No, that hasn’t improved. That’s because in Africa, of course, they also use mobile phones and flat-screen TVs and other electronic devices, and yet there’s barely any infrastructure for effective recycling. Once the devices are no longer viable, they’re often stripped down by young people in a primitive manner. So, for example, they burn the plastic coating of cables to get at the copper. There’s a lack of initiatives to curtail that. For a long time, many actors resisted offering tangible help to the salvagers for fear of intensifying these practices and the informal trade with the rubbish. By now, we know that there’s no other way except to give people screwdrivers, safety goggles and gloves and to explain to them the safest and best way to take the devices apart, but also how disastrous it is, say, to burn the cables because the fumes are extremely hazardous to health.

How far are the industrialised countries on the road to building a circular economy for e-waste? Is the situation comparable with the renewable energies in the ’90s, when the first businesses emerged but major industrialisation had yet to catch up?

We’re much further along today in terms of recycling. The problem we have is that many consumers here don’t take their old devices to the recycling centre because these are mostly on the edge of town. No one is going to travel ten kilometres to dispose of their computer or mobile phone, which is understandable. That means that in Germany around 45 percent of e-waste is documented as not recycled, and worldwide it’s as high as 85 percent. A proportion of this also ends up in our household waste, remains in our cellars or attics, is illegally exported or wrongfully collected with metals. The sticking point is the collection and return. And there we really are stuck in the ’90s. Packaging waste, wastepaper, food waste – it’s all collected from our doorsteps. Why do I have to drive valuable electronic waste, of all things, through the neighbourhood myself?

Old devices are supposed to be full of precious metals. Why don’t the waste management companies just collect them?

The responsibility lies with the manufacturers. They engage schemes to collect them, which are competing with each other on cost, and the costs for doorstep collection have simply been too high so far. Mobile phones do contain precious metals, but only very small amounts in each device. A total of 8,000 mobiles – that’s equivalent to around one ton in weight – will only yield about 5,000 euros worth of valuable materials. So there have to be huge volumes involved to make it profitable for the recyclers. That’s why it should be made more attractive for the manufacturers of the devices to reuse these resources.

And how would that be done?

One solution would be to no longer offer the devices for purchase at all, but only their functions or services. We don’t need to own the mobile phone we use for work. If the manufacturers only sell the use of their devices, then they have to take them back. Then they’ll design them more cleverly so that the raw materials in them can be reused. That way, consumers can enjoy the latest technological innovations without producing massive amounts of waste.

Is there also a lack of technologies and capacities in the industry to recycle all the old devices and reuse the recovered raw materials?

The infrastructure for complete e-waste recycling in Germany is there. The problem is the classification – what is waste in the first place and what isn’t. The gateway for exports to Africa is devices that still work. They can’t be exported otherwise.

But in terms of sustainability that’s a good thing – getting more use out of tech.

That’s true, the greatest environmental impact of many electronic devices comes from their production. A longer lifecycle means a smaller material footprint. Therefore exports to Africa are in fact a good thing. But the problem is that many of the exported monitors or mobiles are actually scrap. Either because they are broken or they’re so old that no one can or wants to use them again. Only around 30 to 40 percent of the devices that arrive in Africa can still be used at all.

So it really is exporting waste in disguise?

That’s right. No one can adequately check whether, in a container of old flat screens headed for Africa, all of them really do work. Customs couldn’t employ enough people. The problem of this unlawful waste export has gone on for years without a political solution. And on top of that, devices sent to Africa that do work still have to be recycled there at some point. But the infrastructure for all the necessary stages in state-of-the-art recycling is missing.

Can we solve that by exporting technology?

They’re trying. But here too, you need masses of waste, which is processed in large-scale industrial processes, otherwise it’s not worth it. So you would have to invest billions. That makes it far too risky for the big recyclers to build their own smelting plants in Africa. But there are some good examples of collaborations whereby pre-sorted e-waste is exported back to Europe, Japan or North America.

So in the EU we have the industrial systems for fully-fledged recycling, but it’s more of a political/administrative problem getting to grips with the material cycles?

That’s one aspect, the other is a problem of information. Most people don’t know where they can get rid of their devices, so they just put them away, or even throw them out with their household waste.

Carbon neutrality can only be achieved with raw material neutrality. Can we treat the waste and climate problem as two sides of the same coin and solve them together?

We need real circular systems. Carbon pricing helps with this, but it hardly figures in the manufacture of electrical and electronic goods. The aviation industry has come round to the idea of climate neutrality, the automotive industry too. But in the electronics industry there has hardly been any take-up so far. No electronic device is advertised with 100 percent recyclability. And where are the ones promoted as being easy to repair?

Could recycling become a business model for countries in the Global South?

To an extent, yes. We shouldn’t be sending our waste specifically to Africa for dismantling the devices and then reimporting the components back to Europe for melting down. Only locally generated e-waste should be recycled in Africa. It’s best if raw materials are reused where the waste is produced.