We are not only buying more electronic gadgets, we’re getting rid of them more quickly too - creating millions of tonnes of e-waste. There are some groundbreaking companies turning this trash into cash, but a new short film from Barchester Green highlights how too much e-waste is being sent to Africa and causing real environmental and social damage. Technology now moves so fast, that almost any gadget you buy will soon seem behind-the-times. That has left many of us with unwanted phones, computers and televisions destined to become ‘e-waste’ – that is anything that had a battery or plug that is no longer of use. Only around 13% of our e-waste is recycled(1). Increasingly our e-waste is being dumped, often illegally, in enormous sites such as Agbogbloshie in Ghana or Guiyu in China. By one estimate around 50 million tonnes of unwanted electronic devices are shipped to these two vast dumps each year(2) . Ghana alone imports 215,000 tonnes of second hand electronics - the equivalent of 21 Eiffel Towers of waste - each year.
Deadly dumping grounds
E-waste can contain hundreds of toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury or cadmium, causing cancer, respiratory problems and worse. Strict health, safety and environmental controls need to be in place when such waste is treated – which is sadly not the case in places such as Agbogbloshie in Ghana which has been ranked as one of top 10 most toxic places on earth. In our video our film-maker journeyed to Ghana to see the Agbogbloshie dump, and observed first-hand the environmental and social dangers including flying debris and toxic smoke in the air from the burning of plastics. The developed world’s e-waste has become known as the ‘effluent of the affluent’ in some parts of Africa and our film also shows the ill-will that this has created. In Ghana, former teacher Sampson Atiemo tells of how a Dutch company donated a shipment of computers to his school, but they found that 80% of them were broken.
An electronic Eldorado
However some innovative thinking and a group of groundbreaking companies are helping to find more sustainable solutions to e-waste. Their ideas are based on the fact that e-waste also contains large amounts of precious metals and other resources. For example, a UN-backed initiative has found that the annual production of electronic goods worldwide uses 320 tonnes of gold and over 7,500 tonnes of silver, worth $21 billion. At present, just 15% of that is recovered(3). Amazingly, there is around 60 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore(4). Smart sustainability funds are tapping into this potential to turn risk into returns.
Investing in waste
For example, the WHEB sustainability fund is active in the ‘urban mining’ sector, i.e. they are looking at companies that mine historic landfill sites, or provide the technology to mine them, in order to extract the resources hidden within them. They can also use the waste to generate energy. This is an industry growing especially rapidly in the Far East. Another example is Alliance Trust’s Sustainable Future Funds, which invest in UK companies such as Shanks and Pennon. They are providing sustainable waste management and creating infrastructure such as waste treatment and recycling centres(5). Solving the scandal of dumped e-waste in less developed countries is first and foremost a health and environmental issue, but those investors that become part of the solution are likely to see good returns as well as doing the right thing. Watch a trailer for the Barchester Green video.
(1) The Guardian
(2) The Guardian
(3) StEP Initiative in Forbes
(4) Southampton University
(5) Peter Michaelis, Alliance Trust