The increasing focus on energy access for refugees and host communities is accompanied with raising numbers of electronic waste (e-waste) in displacement settings. Items distributed or sold in camps, such as solar lanterns or solar home systems, can harm health and environment if not properly disposed of which, as the lack of evidence suggests, is seldomly done. For energy solutions to be fully sustainable, handling e-waste is an integral component, containing also an economic value, that offsets, if not tackled, the positive impact of improved energy access in displacement settings. This is why ESDS commissioned a study that examines the state of e-waste in camps and settlements and developed a set of recommendations for implementing a collection scheme to be piloted in a selected camp. The complete study will be available soon.
With energy access in displacement settings gaining more and more track, actors from the humanitarian, development or private sector disseminate increasing amounts of electrical products in camps and settlements. This influx of energy-producing devices, such as solar lanterns and solar home systems, is a positive trend since it speaks to the rising understanding of energy as vital need for refugees and host communities. At the same time however, this rapid increase of off-grid solutions entails a number of challenges concerning sustainability, primarily in the repair and recycling domain. Given the emerging nature of market conditions in displacement settings, solar companies do not yet have an extensive presence which they could use to offer after-sale services and collect products which broke or reached their end-of-life. Moreover, although steadily increasing, their number has not reached a level that would make it economically viable. Combined with the focus of humanitarian actors to offer immediate assistance by distributing products, e.g. within welcome packages or pilots, the issue of managing the items when they cannot be anymore used is a key impediment to render energy solutions truly sustainable.
This is insofar significant as the waste of these products can be toxic if not properly handled: The substances contained in batteries, from lithium, cadmium to nickel, can contaminate the environment and harm the health of humans and animals when entering soil or groundwater, while the residues of plastic cases, cables or PV-arrays are mostly non-degradable and accrue over time. There are also immediate safety-related risks since some battery-types can burn or even explode if not stored appropriately. In addition, e-waste management entails an economic component as these materials have a monetary value that can be utilized if properly recycled to supplement business models and contribute to alleviating the scarcity of certain primary resources.
These aspects demonstrate that the need exists to put in place schemes that foster a circular economy for off-grid energy solutions in displacement settings. ESDS organized a web-workshop in June 2020 with relevant actors to collect ideas and explore synergies with comparable initiatives. The Solar E-Waste Challenge and GOGLA's E-waste Toolkit are among them which both work towards sustaining the off-grid energy sector through managing e-waste. The discussions during the workshop fed into the commissioning of a study by ESDS which had two principal tasks: One was to investigate the state of e-waste in ESDS’ project countries Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, the second to develop a pilot project for collecting it via a business model. The former included a review of legislative frameworks, practices of stakeholders and a mapping of the flow of e-waste, the latter had to be restricted to interviews with companies, GIZ and UNHCR staff due to Covid-19 related travel restrictions that hindered site visits. It is planned to gather insights from the field in 2021 to supplement the results.
The study gives a detailed contextual introduction into the topic of e-waste in displacement settings in ESDS’ project countries and highlights the importance of more focus that must be paid towards it. This concerns on the one hand legislative aspects: Despite the signing or ratification of several international conventions that pertain to e-waste, adequate regulations are either not yet fully developed due to gaps in their enforcement, have a non-binding form or do not exist. Due to this, companies involved in disseminating off-grid energy solutions in camps and settlements, and the countries in general, are not obliged to handle waste generated from their products. On the other hand, most humanitarian or development actors active in distributing solar products, be it as giveaways or via incentivization schemes for companies, have not systematically incorporated e-waste in their operations despite generic waste management and sensitization activities enacted as part of wider environmental policies.
This lack of attention is evidenced by the lack of specific records on the flow of e-waste in camps and settlements: Neither companies nor organizations have a clear understanding on the exact amount of products entering and exiting, partially due to the informal market conditions in displacement settings which makes it difficult to trace them, partially as this has not been a priority so far. In general, waste management practices in camps and settlement include dumbing waste gathered from collection points in community pits in surrounding areas and to cover or burn them, while in some cases waste is managed more rudimentary without any strategy. Segregation of waste is at best rudimentary and relies for e-waste on sub-standard practices which aggravate environmental pollution and pose safety risks. More detailed information on this, including the presence of informal recycling, will be examined once field visits are possible.
Notwithstanding this scarcity of concrete data, the study managed to map the overall flow of e-waste which details the dynamics behind the supply chain of electronic products into camps and settlements and depicts potential avenues for intervention.
This demonstrates that a key challenge exists in the disconnect between companies and displacement contexts in terms of access and logistics: Without a presence of private sector actors in camps or settlements and e-waste management programs by donors, products at their end-of-life seldomly reach vendors who could repair or forward them to formal recyclers, and are rather often stripped informally of valuable assets and dumped in the environment. To change this, the study provides several actionable recommendations for governments and actors in the humanitarian and development field, chiefly UNHCR and GIZ, that allow to tackle e-waste in a sustainable manner and limit harm on environment and health.
One of the proposed solutions concern the “Extended User Responsibility” system (EPR): By making companies responsible for taking back, recycling and disposing products they sell, EPRs oblige them to account for their end-of-life. The level and type of the responsibilities, cost distribution and control mechanisms of EPRs vary, but their common feature that they are legislated nationally. This means that for them to be systemically applied in displacement settings to handle e-waste, states must establish the necessary regulations. For ESDS’ project countries, Kenya and Uganda have initiated policies to that end which might yield EPR systems in the near future. Given the implications of EPRs, it is important to fine-tune them to the local context and allow for feedback-loops in their formulation for companies as to not disincentivize them to operate in camps and settlements with too stringent schemes.
To assist in this by establishing information, the study developed a pilot for a business model that is aimed at distilling opportunities and barriers for managing e-waste in the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement in Northern Uganda. Since solar products have been distributed and sold there and GIZ-supported energy kiosks exist that can act as collection point, it is a promising site for a proof-of-concept. To design the model, the average cost per collected and recycled Kilogram e-waste was estimated at 2 USD and an incentive structure proposed for customers to hand in their products at their end-of-life, consisting of awareness campaigns and discounts and vouchers for new purchases. The scenario foresees commissioning a Service Integrator to collect and segregated e-waste at fixed points in containers and hand them to Waste Operators to remove once full. The costs are to be taken by distributors of electronic products based on the amount they introduce in the settlement. To guarantee enforcement, the study proposed a compliance commitment companies and organizations ought to sign and the formation of a joint oversight body between authorities and relevant stakeholders in the humanitarian field.
The overall objective is to have a collection mechanism in place that removes e-waste from the environment and acts as first step to introduce a circular economy as outlined in a separate study. For products still somewhat functional, this can entail repair, reuse or refurbish, for unusable items this means recycling. It is important to distinguish the former cycles which can be done locally by trained technicians or companies from the latter since it requires complex technical procedures for which facilities do not exist yet in Africa. This links to interconnectivity between repairability solar products and e-waste which ESDS examines in a separate study.
The concept of the e-waste management pilot is planned to be refined with insights on the ground in field visits in the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement in 2021 which also serves to collect more data on the issue of e-waste in displacement settings. In addition, to advance the topic further, ESDS established a working group open to all interested where ideas and activities are discussed to operationalize the recommendations of the study.
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| GIZ’s Energy Solutions for Displacement Settings (ESDS) project cooperates with UNHCR to enhance the access to sustainable energy in displacement contexts, and the Energypedia page has been created to share learnings across various practitioners to spur the development of clean energy solutions.