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Egypt eyes moneymaking potential of e-waste

Egypt is one of Africa's biggest generators of e-waste, but the growing pollution problem also offers economic opportunities.

Mobile phones, computers and tablets play a vital role in our lives today, but they also contribute to a growing electronic waste problem. Given the speed of developments in technology, the shorter lifespan of these products and the replacement of electronic devices with newer models, e-waste will only continue to grow.

Electrical and electronic equipment waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world and Egypt is no exception. According to the latest report by Global E-waste Monitor, Egypt is one of Africa's biggest e-waste-generating countries at 0.5 million metric tons annually. The world is reported to have generated a total of 44.7 metric tons of e-waste in 2017.

Most of this waste is not recycled. Globally, 15-20% of e-waste is recycled while only 5% of e-waste is processed in the Middle East and North Africa. The rest is usually dumped in landfills.

Recycling this waste is the right thing to do not only for Egypt's ecology, but for its economy as well. Ghada Moghny, senior program specialist at the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE), believes that e-waste holds a lot of potential for Egypt.

“E-waste can be a profitable industry for Egypt,” Moghny told Al-Monitor. By creating factories that recycle e-waste and make use of precious metals, you help create jobs in collecting, dismantling and recycling e-waste. But there are also hazards that we have to watch out for and prevent.”

Heavy metals and other toxic substances found in electronics such as lead, arsenic and mercury contaminate groundwater and soil, posing serious health and environmental hazards. But e-waste also contains precious metals such as gold, silver and other valuable materials such as glass, plastics and ceramics that can be reused in different products.

The problem is that extracting precious metals and materials from electronic devices can be hazardous for those who do the job by hand, usually garbage collectors and scavengers — the so-called informal sector. They often rely on unsafe recycling methods such as burning cables to extract copper and submerging equipment in toxic acids.

“There is very limited awareness by informal workers about properly handling electronic waste,” said Mostafa Hemdan, founder of Recyclobekia, one of Egypt’s first e-waste recycling companies. “Many practice the open burning of waste, which releases a lot of dangerous emissions, such as [persistent organic pollutants].”

Moghny pointed out, “They are only concerned about the precious metals and they don’t think about how to extract these metals without it being hazardous to their health first and foremost, then on the environment.”

Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology partnered with Sustainable Recycling Industries (SRI) of Switzerland in 2016 to implement standards for handling e-waste for the first time ever in Egypt.

“We now have a new conformity system,” explained Moghny. “In any government auction, electronic waste must now be separated from other waste before selling it by the ton. Bidders participating in the auction must also be accredited by the Environment Impact Assessment to ensure that e-waste will be handled in an environmentally friendly manner.”

Moghny said that although there are no rules or regulations yet for the private sector, she believes that they will soon follow: “With the government already taking the first step to address and develop a formal system for handling e-waste, this will trickle down to the private sector.”

There are currently four factories in Cairo that recycle e-waste. Their main challenge seems to be getting enough waste to recycle. Although Egypt produces large amounts of e-waste, most of it is processed by the informal sector.

Ahmed Yehia, head of the International Technology Group, one of Egypt’s biggest e-waste recyclers, told Business Monthly, the English-language magazine published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, that informal waste recyclers collect most of the e-waste produced in the country, leaving very little supply for formal recyclers. “They sort it and export it in bulk as waste with zero government oversight,” he said.

Informal workers collect e-waste and sell it to workshops or waste recyclers, who usually dismantle the items and sell each material independently, according to CEDARE’s recent report on e-waste in Egypt.

To help integrate informal recyclers, the SRI project provided training on how to make e-waste recycling safer and more sustainable through its Youth Incubation Program. “We help refine their ideas into a doable business model,” said Moghny. “It is a good opportunity for Egypt’s youth, especially for those who struggle to find jobs.”

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are setting up businesses to make money from recycling electronic waste. Mostafa Hemdan started Recyclobekia with a few university students seven years ago in his parents’ garage. Although he had no prior knowledge or experience in e-waste recycling, he got the idea after watching a documentary about electronic recycling. Today, he employs more than 20 people and sells $2.4 million worth of electronic waste a year, according to Egypt Independent.

Hemdan believes that working with the private sector is key to increase the volume of e-waste recycling. “E-waste is a lucrative industry, but with Egypt being a consumer-based economy, it doesn’t produce or manufacture much electronic or electric appliances,” Hemdan told Al-Monitor. “We therefore have to increase our cooperation with the private sector to ensure that we have enough e-waste to recycle.”

But with little awareness about recycling, many people don’t know what to do with their old and used devices. While it may be easy to just dump them, Moghny recommends giving them to non-governmental organizations that collect e-waste or to maintenance and repair shops that make use of old parts.

“We have to educate people on the right and wrong ways of handling electronic waste. We must also provide alternatives and practical ways of collecting waste,” said Moghny.

With electronic waste destined to grow, proper handling becomes all the more pressing.

“If e-waste doesn’t get recycled, we lose out economically, environmentally and health-wise. It will be a lost opportunity,” said Moghny.

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