Breaking the Barriers on Battery Recycling and E-Waste in Africa

Stefanie Valentic, Editorial Director

November 5, 2020

10 Min Read
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Barriers to entry exist in nearly every market, some more than others.

For e-waste, these obstacles could be significant as the transportation of hazardous waste from one country to another presents a myriad of risks and hazards.

Netherlands-based Closing the Loop (CTL) and United States-based Call2Recycle are leading the charge on battery recycling in Nigeria, a country where GDP per capita doubled from $1400 in 2000 to an estimated $2,800 per person in 2012, according to the Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission.

Eight of Africa’s countries are experiencing significant population growth, including Nigeria, which is expected to gain 527 million people by the year 2100, the most of any country in the world, according to United Nation projections.

With a population increase and the emerging market comes a burgeoning middle-class. The African Development Bank reports that 34% of Africa’s population, spends $2.20 a day, a 100% rise in less than 20 years. This rise in consumption includes the purchase of electronics as well as a subsequent increase in e-waste.

Reinhardt Smit, CTL’s supply chain director and Carl Smith, Call2Recycle’s CEO and president, recently spoke with Waste360 about the difficulties of entering a new market, transporting e-waste from Africa to Europe, the impact of the Basel Convention on their efforts and what comes next for e-waste recycling.

Waste360: What are Call2Recycle’s and Closing the Loop’s missions and how did they come together for this project?

Carl Smith: Consumer battery collection and responsible recycling and environmental stewardship is Call2Recycle’s mission. Having collected approximately 59 million kg (or approximately 130 million lbs.) of batteries in the U.S. for recycling since inception in 1994, Call2Recycle is familiar with the challenges related to the transboundary movement of batteries. We acted as an advisor to CTL and its partners on how to overcome the unique challenges of transporting batteries, including the navigation of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, an international treaty designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste.

In the past, Call2Recycle has transported batteries to Canada, South Korea, and France, among other countries, and we understand that such challenges can greatly increase recycling costs. We provided key learnings to CTL on how to increase recycling efficiency and reduce costs along the way.

Reinhardt Smit: CTL’s mission is to make circularity and sustainability something practical, understandable and applicable to everyone. We want to take the conversation away from high-level, very long-term ideas to solutions and applications that are pragmatic. We start with IT, helping organizations make their IT more sustainable by offering them an option to buy more sustainably, by compensating their waste.

This is the first step for organizations to “get involved” in circularity, and who knows what they do afterward. Batteries are a logical product in this service, and hence the idea was founded. Call2Recycle is an interesting partner simply because we heard they have been fighting the same fight, albeit from a different angle. Combining our knowledge and experience was therefore logical.

Waste360: How was it to build the battery infrastructure for battery trading?

Reinhardt Smit: That was quite a struggle. I had the advantage of having grown up in Ghana. So, I understand the African continent very well. But the biggest challenges are finding the right side of sort of partners; bridging the cultural gap between how you do business in Europe and how you do business in various African countries; and then making sure that everybody in your network, everybody that you've formed this relationship to us, and that you’re better. We've made sure that they're good partners, that they keep following the regulations and the guidelines that you put forth.

There's a lot of recycling happening all over the world. Even currently in Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, all these places, there's a lot of recycling happening. But it's not necessarily the right type of recycling. It's very dirty, bad for the environment, bad for society around there. We tried to do it differently. Certainly, we have high standards that people have to stick to. And one of the challenges was trying to make sure that they do stick to the standards and explaining why it's necessary, and convincing them that even though there's the alternative of you know, another partner that doesn't have these standards, it's better to work with us. But they do have these higher standards.

Waste360: What are the perceived economic and societal impacts to fostering a project like this in countries where a market doesn’t exist?

Reinhardt Smit: These batteries would have ended up either being dumped somewhere or being traded, who knows ending up in an acid bath, or whatever, to maybe remove the copper from these batteries instead of the cobalt, which would just be simply a big waste to the environment, but also very, very hazardous.

The environmental benefits are easy to measure because we've managed to recycle them safely and get the cobalt back into the economy. The societal benefits are basically that, from our estimation, a couple of hundred people were involved in collecting these batteries. They were people who went out to shops, to family members who happen to have old batteries, because they can get some money from it. And they started trading and making sure the batteries got to us, so that's basically income. For these people, we don't know if it was living wages or full income, but it was at least additional to what they have now, with the collection of these batteries.

There's already more work being done. The local authorities are understanding how to get permits. The recycler understands more about what is necessary for safe storage and what they can offer the clients that pay them for recycling, but they can offer them to do this on a more systematic basis. So we are, for example, already working on the next collection and making it something that is sustainable, also financially in the long-term building capacity in a country like Nigeria.

Carl Smith: We're working with Closing the Loop on this is what we're seeing currently in North America. And that is the difficulty of moving materials like this, inevitably, to the infrastructure necessarily necessary to properly recycle it. What Closing the Loop really had issues with is because the material is considered hazardous, the permitting process to actually move material and get it handled well is incredibly costly and time-consuming. Until we overcome the difficulty of moving material seamlessly and getting it to recyclers who can extract value, it's going to be really, really difficult to have robust recycling of electronics and batteries.

Waste360: How is the Basel Convention obstructing improvements in the recycling of electronic waste?

Reinhardt Smit: It’s aimed at reducing waste being shipped to countries that can’t deal with it. But the same restrictions hinder shipments in the opposite directions. The paperwork and bureaucracy are immense, deterring anyone from doing it correctly, or even at all.

Waste360: Were there any issues with corruption during this process?

Reinhardt Smit: There were issues of avoiding corruption for sure. A certain (slow) way of doing things is the only way to avoid it. There are some concrete examples, but we were able to avoid all known corruption or bribery issues.

Waste360: What are the next steps for Closing the Loop?

Reinhardt Smit: There are 180 countries that agreed on the [Basel] Convention, and they came up with policies and procedures in the room in Geneva, where they decided that this is how we're going to manage the command and control the shipment of waste. None of those people have any practical experience. So, what does it actually translate to when you're actually doing the work? Now, the idea behind this work is that we do not want to ship waste into countries that cannot process it. And there’s good reason behind these regulations that are there.

The problem is that there's no difference between whether you're shipping it from a place that can or from a place that cannot process it in terms of complexity. But if I'm shipping waste from a country that clearly has no way of processing to a country that clearly has the way of processing, that should be a lot easier. From a practical standpoint, the majority of our investment into this project went into making sure that shipment was actually possible. It's almost impossible to explain in words how complicated that process is.

In terms of what's next for us, as a company, we really want to expand on this. The idea of waste compensation is not ours. We are sure we're the pioneers in that when it comes to electronics, but it's been going on a little bit for plastics for a while already. I'm sure it can be used for many other waste streams as well. The European Union in their answer to their plans for the circular economy has mentioned waste compensation as a way forward a big step towards the circular economy. And that creates opportunities not only for Closing the Loop but for any company that wants to really make a difference today or tomorrow rather than 30 years from now, by following this model. For us, we really want to be seen as maybe a pioneer in that field, but also take others along with us to invest in the same sphere and try and do the same thing.

Waste360: What kind of opportunities does e-waste recycling have for businesses and the economy?

Carl Smith:  From smartphones to laptops, technology has become a key component of our daily lives. While much attention has been given to these devices and how to safely dispose of them, there has been attention on electronic waste, or e-waste, and the economic opportunities it presents in a circular business model.

This model leverages a variety of waste management strategies to keep product materials, like lithium-ion batteries and their reliance on cobalt , in a loop of continuous use whenever possible. These materials are commonly used, yet expensive to manufacture or require mining of virgin material, making the business case for recovery clear – recycling batteries makes good business sense. It maximizes spend and minimizes their negative impact on the environment. The CTL pilot program leveraged such a model to create a viable solution to recycling end-of-life phone batteries in Nigeria, one of the most challenging e-waste problems to address in the country.

Reinhardt Smit:  It’s the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. Something has to be done with that waste. That simple statement explains how large the economic potential is. Combine it with less developed areas of the world and the social opportunities are huge.

Waste360: Where do you see the e-waste segment of our industry moving in the next five years with the continued proliferation of electronics?

Reinhardt Smit: In the next five years, we need to solve the recycling part of the of the circular economy. If you look at the value chain in a circular economy, recycling is one of the least valuable, but it is currently one of the biggest impact points. There's an opportunity for collecting waste and for recycling. It's the least we can do, but it has a lot of impact. I think in the next five years, especially in developing parts of the world, there'll be a lot more systematic buildup of organizations who try to solve this and hopefully more in a business-minded way of doing things. There's currently a lot of projects publicly funded in these countries that tried to solve the problem, but there's not really a business model behind it. And I really hope that through our work, but also with others that shows that there's also business behind it, and that I think will accelerate interest and investment into this field in developing countries.

About the Author(s)

Stefanie Valentic

Editorial Director, Waste360

Stefanie Valentic is the editorial director of Waste360. She can be reached at [email protected].


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