As an issue spanning geo-political, developmental and environmental concerns, e-waste is a recurrent theme in the environmental agenda of countries, the ICT industry media and a strong focus for international organizations. It’s an issue that evokes concerns of exploitation of developing countries and pollution in developed and developing countries alike. At the same time it is an opportunity to create new resources through reuse and recycling, all of which will depend on environmentally sound management (ESM) of e-waste at the global level.
At Telefonica it’s an issue that we take very seriously, contributing to international efforts to tackle the problem by participating in different forums as well as making sure our own house is in order through an integrated waste management program.
Telefonica is proud to be hosting the coming ITU Green Standards Week, which will feature a Forum on e-waste, in Madrid 16-20 September. During this event we will promote the idea that e-waste is a challenge that can become an opportunity for sustainable business and green growth. At the same time we will emphasize that ESM requires articulated efforts between public sector, private sector, NGOs, academia and citizenship.
Taking into account that the United Nations University (UNU) estimates that 2013 has so far produced 53 million tons of e-waste, it is clear that this is a topic that must be tackled with some urgency. To give the problem some perspective consider the report Where are Weee in Africa which estimates that about 220,000 tons of electrical and electronic goods were shipped from the EU to West Africa in 2009, a large amount of which was waste with no possible further use.
Nevertheless governments and companies are moving forward. In 2012, a new Directive on the European Union, EU Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, agreed that an ambitious target of 85 per cent of WEEE should be collected separately from other waste by 2019. That equates to roughly 20kg per capita compared to the current collection target of 4kg. In addition, the new WEEE Directive will give EU Member States the tools to fight illegal export of waste more effectively.
Part of the problem is that, at least as far as Europe is concerned, current rules make the export of used electronic goods cheaper than disposing of them at home. There is also clear evidence that some products sent as charitable donations, ostensibly for reuse, are in fact little more than useless waste. According to UNEP in Ghana 30 per cent of imports of allegedly secondhand products are estimated to be unusable.
Telefonica has been proud to participate in international efforts to mitigate the detrimental effects of e-waste and to control proliferation. As well as contributing to ITU work on the topic, and hosting this year’s Green Standards Week, Telefonica recently sponsored an ITU workshop in Ecuador on the “Environmentally Sound Management of e-Waste in Latin America”. That meeting closed with a call to Latin American Governments to establish policies and regulation based on international standards to facilitate the environmentally sound management of e-waste.
That call followed a similar agreement by representatives of Central American governments, private companies, universities and non-governmental organizations on a 20-point Agenda aiming to promote advances in the handling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) in the region. Key, they agreed, will be the application and identification of business models that leverage recycling opportunities and create new employment.
Telefónica also practices what it preaches, promoting the three “Rs” – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle in the management of its waste. As an example, Telefonica has put in place programmes to financially incentivise customers to recycle their old mobile phones. In 2012, the Company collected 147 metric tons of customers’ phones for reuse and 69 tonnes for recycling. We always use authorised companies, and moreover work through special audits to ensure environmentally sound management (ESM) of WEEE.
When managing e-waste we will always find challenges. However we are convinced that the commitment of manufacturers, importers and distributors, can make a difference throughout the life-cycle of electrical and electronic equipment.
We have every reason to feel positive that the progress achieved so far, including initiatives such as those mentioned and international standardization efforts, like ITU’s Universal Charging Solutions, are taking us in the right direction. We will continue to work with ITU, UNEP, UNU and other partners to ensure that the e-waste challenges can be turned into an opportunity.
Maya leads Telefónica’s environmental team working on Environmental Management System and waste management in Telefonica businesses in different countries.