The advent of South-South cooperation in dealing with global e-waste challenge?

South-South cooperation has become an integral part in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals. Now we may find structural transformation from natural resource export based economies towards “Made-in-Africa” industrial economy on Africa’s new development agenda. Circular economy offers a set of pathways for African countries to fulfill their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) commitments in the 2015 Paris Agreement while maintain sustained growth to eradicate poverty. Among others, nurturing recycling systems and developing refinery industries to tackle electric and electronic waste are issues that African leaders keep close eyes upon.

Computer recycling in Africa.
Computer and e-waste recycling in Africa. Source: Free Computer Recycling.

Nearly 60 million metric tonnes of e-waste is disposed worldwide each year. However, most of the e-waste generated in developed countries is shipped to developing countries, such as African countries, India and China, for reuse and recycling, while often violating international laws. United Nations Environment Program reported that up to 90% of world’s electronic waste is illegally dumped. Transboundary dumping of e-waste from developed countries to Africa contributes nil to internet and computer penetration but poses a severe burden to waste management systems particularly in the absence of regulations and technological know-how. If you walk to the suburb areas of African cities, you are very likely to find scavengers cherry-picking metals from e-waste and throwing the residues into open burning fire, black and toxic smoke releasing into air desperately.

The absence of adequate policies, enabling legislation and an environmentally stimulated and enlightened public severely trapped the environmental sound management of e-waste in African countries. The most salient feature is the large portion of informal actors who work on door-to-door collection, manual dismantling, acid bath crude recovery of metals, open burning to reduce volumes and open dumping of non-valuable fractions.

Africa is in dire need of more formalized e-waste recycling plants and processing businesses. By 2015, only Kenya and South Africa have e-waste recycling plants in the Eastern and Southern Africa regions. West Africa has long been perplexed by huge illegal e-waste dumping volumes while lagging behind in concerted regulations, crafted policies and technological facilities for recycling activities. The continent is skating on the thin ice by inactively addressing massive e-waste piling so far.

routes of e-waste
Known and suspected routes of e-waste dumping (University of Northampton), from International Labour Office’s ‘The global impact of e-waste’ report

Since a decade ago, some African countries have been involved in “Best-of-Two-Worlds (Bo2W)” business based on comparative advantages for a closed material loop via cooperation with state-of-art refinery infrastructure in the North. Among others limits, one particular downside of Bo2W business is the perverse lock-in effect of scattered bilateral North-South cooperation while persistently hampering local structural transformation and industrialization of recycling in Africa. Economists such as Paul Collier have tested and proved the “resource curse” which suggests the long-term negative impact of dependency on primary natural resource exports. I would argue “resource curse” may also explain the opportunity cost of trading metal scraps after pre-processing instead of industrializing end-processing fine metal products. African countries are at a crossroad of breaking business dependency and creating new policy stickiness for sustainability – a “creative destruction” as Schumpeter’s gale economics entails.

Policy entrepreneurship is needed in different regions of Africa to leverage political and business support for cohesive regional recycling networks and metal scrap trade among countries within Africa for an economy-of-scale refinery industry. West Africa has Nigeria to take the lead while Eastern and Southern Africa may look towards South Africa. Harnessing a collaborative multilateral recycling cooperation system across countries in Africa requires first establishing stable supply chain for e-waste feed-in streams, then gradually scaling up the business while continuously auditing the dynamics of key factors such as metal price levels, labor costs, recycling standards, technological innovations in order to adjust the recycling strategies correspondingly.

Governments in Africa can overcome the “collective action problem” and political obstacles, and start from scratch to build trust and business synergies. Creating opportunities for win-win collaboration is pivotal. For effective investment and differentiated responsibilities, development banks may group African countries into three categories: Nigeria and South Africa as leading countries and potential refinery smelter hosting countries (category 1); countries with significant e-waste streams and existing recycling schemes (category 2) and countries where e-waste recycling practice has not been a common practice yet (category 3). Public policies can support technology transfer, backward and forward industrial linkage development as well as business investment in category 1 countries; optimize and harmonize collection systems to improve efficiency in category 2 countries; raise awareness and encourage groundswell of recycling behaviors in category 3 countries. A “Pull-and-Transformation“ strategy could be adopted by regional coordination agencies on the vertical hierarchy of three categories so that countries follow an “evolutionary economics” approach and lock in path dependencies. Such a “Pull-and-Transformation“ strategy would augment policy stickiness once all parties agreed upon the shared vision of an African continental competence of recycling and refinery.

Unlike the “Best-of-Two-Worlds (Bo2W)” business offered by the West, China has a lot to offer through a sustainable industrialization collaboration under the UN South-South cooperation framework. Back in 2006, the Chinese government in its 11th five-year-plan announced that it would establish up to 50 overseas economic and trade cooperation zones. China’s outward investment policies have achieved emerging global impact. By July 2016, China has put $46 billion in direct Chinese investment and commercial loans into Africa – a relationship between partners and equals instead of donors and recipients.

At home, China has explored tackling e-scraps in industrial parks to clear up informal recycling activities. One typical and successful example is the $233 million Guiyu Circular Economy Industrial Park. Please bear in mind that Guiyu had long been a notorious village as e-waste dumping ground. Africa may borrow such experience and use industrial parks as leverage to formalize e-waste recycling and metal recovery.

Political will is the ultimate drive for change. The sector is ready and organized but waiting for governments. With the long-term vision, policy makers can be the catalyst to unfold opportunities for a system change towards regional/continental circular economy. For an ambitious strategic plan of nurturing a continental circular economy network in recycling e-waste and recovering precious metals, South-South cooperation has myriad to offer. Collaboration is to be built not only between African countries and extra-regional emerging economies but also among three categories of African countries themselves. If Africa can recycle 1.9 Mt (2014 UNU figure) e-waste and recover roughly 0.75 million tonnes of ferrous metal, 0.2 million tonnes of aluminium, 0.2 million tonnes of copper and significant amount of previous metals simply from the e-waste, the socio-economic and ecological impact will bring Africa certainly not only INDCs credits but also international respect in history. We shall embrace that grand vision!

Yanzhu Zhang is studying Master of Public Policy at Blavatnik School of Government. He has worked in the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and conducted the MPP summer project in the World Bank on environment and development.

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