A Decade To Act: Mapping The Electronic Waste (E-Waste) Challenge To Entrepreneurship & The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


E-waste Is An Alarming Global Sustainability Challenge – Derefaka, J.O (2013)

E-waste is in the Eye of the Beholder – (Seaber, 2014)


The ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was endorsed by the United Nations and all Member States in September 2015. This new agenda identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets to end poverty, safeguard the environment, and promote prosperity for all. The environment, human health, and the attainment of the SDGs are all threatened by rising volumes of e-waste, incorrect and unsafe treatment, and disposal through incineration and/or landfills.
A better understanding of e-waste, as well as more data, will help to accomplish various goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It will contribute to achieving the SDGs for environmental protection and health. It will also address employment and economic growth, since environmentally sound e-waste handling can lead to new job opportunities and entrepreneurship.
E-waste management and its in-depth understanding are inextricably related to Goal 3 (Good health and Well-being), Goal 6 (Clean water and Sanitation), Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), Goal 14 (Life Below Water), and Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). That said, it is also worth contemplating the impact of electronic goods on global warming. Every technology ever built has a carbon footprint and contributes to global warming caused by humans. Produce a tonne of laptops and up to ten tonnes of CO2 is emitted. When considering the carbon dioxide released across a device’s lifetime, the majority of it occurs during production before users purchase a product. As a result, reduced carbon production procedures and inputs (such as the use of recycled raw materials) and product lifetime are major factors of overall environmental impact.
Electronic waste (commonly referred to as “e-waste”) streams are currently threatening environmental sustainability, and the primary drivers of this phenomena are rapid socio-economic development, cutting-edge technological improvement, and the insatiable human nature. The reason is not far-fetched, as a large part of the driving force has to do with customer aesthetics, business profit margins, and high-tech change, which has created a “use-and-throw” culture in which people now believe that the latest is always better

Figure 1.0: How the world managed e-waste in 2019. UNU/UNITAR SCYCLE©/Nienke Haccoû (Source: The Conversation)

than the older product, alluding to the quote “e-waste is in the eye of the beholder.” As a result, outmoded items should be discarded as soon as possible, and “ever-shortening product lifespans and rapid turnover of secondhand electronic equipment by consumers are among the forces contributing to the increasing volume of e-waste,”. E-waste has now become a “global, interregional, and domestic concern” as a result of the shift. This calls into question the value of the widely advertised green economy as a solution to the current issues facing sustainable development at the Rio+20 meeting. In essence, this suggests that the e-waste problem is chronic and must be treated with the seriousness it deserves.
WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment), e-scrap and end-of-life electronics or electronic waste (“e-waste”) is a generic term for a variety of electrical and electronic goods that have reached the end of their useful lives and have been discarded by their owners. There is no commonly accepted definition of e-waste; however, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (“OECD”) defines e-waste as “any appliance that uses an electric power source and has reached the end of its useful life. The UN defines e-waste as any discarded products with a battery or plug, and features toxic and hazardous substances such as mercury, that can pose severe risk to human and environmental health. Between 2014 and 2019, global electronic waste increased by 21%, with the industry on course to generate 74 million tonnes of waste per year by 2030. Higher electrical consumption rates, which have been increasing at a pace of 3% per year, shorter product life spans, and restricted repair choices have all contributed to the problem’s growth.
According to the 2020 UN Global E-waste Monitor, e-waste is the world’s largest waste stream globally, often contains materials that are conflict-ridden and toxic to human health and the environment, and very little is recycled. E-waste also contains valuable materials, such as cobalt, lithium, palladium, copper, and gold, whose value is lost when not recovered through recycling channels. The world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019 an amount greater than the weight of the Great Wall of China – Earth’s heaviest artificial object. That is about 7.3 kilograms per person and equivalent in weight to 350 cruise ships. Asia produced the lion’s share – 24.9 million tonnes – followed by the Americas (13.1 million tonnes) and Europe (12 million tonnes), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 and 0.7 million tonnes respectively. From the generated e-waste in 2019, Only 17.4% of that was recycled. The fraction not recycled (82.6%) represents $47 billion in lost value from materials that could have been recovered, including cobalt, palladium, copper, and other conflict minerals. The world’s electronic waste has a material value of $62.5 billion, a number that exceeds the GDP of most countries, according to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum. What this means is that one can turn the e-waste challenge into a business advantage just as for every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be recovered. Do you know that it takes 530 lbs of fossil fuel, 48 lbs of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor?
According to a World Health Organization assessment, effective and binding action is needed to protect millions of children, adolescents, and expecting mothers whose health is jeopardized by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic equipment (WHO). ’Children and Digital Dumpsites,’ research published in June 2021, claims that millions of tonnes of dangerous electronic waste are dumped each year, putting children’s health at risk. According to the report, over 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five years old, work in the informal industrial sector, which includes garbage processing as a sub-sector. Because children’s hands are more dexterous than adults’, they are frequently involved in e-waste recycling. Others live, attend to school, and play in close proximity to e-waste recycling plants, where high levels of lead and mercury might harm their cognitive capacities. Workers also risk exposure to over 1,000 hazardous compounds, including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, while attempting to recover commodities such as copper and gold.

Figure 1.2: Discarded e-waste isn’t just an environmental problem, it’s also an economic opportunity. UNU/UNITAR SCYCLE©/Yassyn Sidki (Source: The Conversation)



The movie “The digital dump,” about e-waste importation and unrestricted dumping, drew a lot of attention in Nigeria. The film, produced by the Basel Action Network (BAN), provides personal accounts of the rapidly growing trade in old and obsolete electrical and electronic items from affluent countries to maritime towns such as Lagos State, Nigeria. The study of 176 containers of unused electrical and electronic equipment (UEEE) shipped into Lagos, Nigeria, between March and July 2010 revealed that approximately 75% of the cargoes arrived from Europe, 15% from Asia, 5% from African ports (mostly Morocco), and 5% from North America. The United Kingdom leads the way in new and UEEE exports to Africa, followed by Germany and France. E-waste made headlines in April 2010 after Nigeria’s National Environmental Standard Regulatory and Enforcement Agency (NESREA) received notification of an e-waste ship arriving in Lagos, Nigeria. The ship was intercepted and returned to its home port. Despite the fact that this attempt made front-page news, many other incidents of old equipment making their way into Nigeria are never reported. An unexpected visit to Lagos’ renowned computer village is all it takes to grasp the magnitude of e-waste importation into the country. Increased transnational business in UEEE, as well as far-reaching socio-economic benefits, have emerged from e-waste infiltration in Lagos, Nigeria.
80 percent of e-waste sent for recycling in affluent countries ends up being exported (sometimes illegally) to developing countries like China, India, Ghana, and Nigeria for recycling. For a variety of reasons, developed countries sending e-waste to developing countries has become widespread — “expensive labor costs and stringent environmental procedures for hazardous waste clearance inspire the exportation of e-waste to less developed and less regulated countries” like Nigeria. The reason for this is that “exporting is simple, labor rules are loose, and communities are destitute, with widespread hunger.” Current e-waste legislation have loopholes that allow for the transport of e-waste from developed to developing countries under the pretense of “donation” and “recycling.”
Furthermore, developed countries blatantly violate the worldwide Basel Convention as well as regional conventions such as the EU e-waste shipment legislation, the Bamako Convention, and others. The breach is due to a gap, as near-end-of-life (EoL) UEEE are not included in the current resolutions and agreements signed by Nigeria, making it difficult to regulate and control near-end-of-life equipment and devices. As a result, “addressing e-waste management, particularly in underdeveloped nations” is critical. Nigeria, a developing economy with a limited capacity to manufacture information technology, is no exception when it comes to the e-waste crisis, since it has recently emerged as one of the world’s most up-to-date destinations and main dumping grounds from developed nations. Nigeria is the most prominent African importing country for new and UEEE closely followed by Ghana,” according to a 2011 United Nations Basel Report. As a result, Lagos, Nigeria, has emerged as the epicenter of Africa’s e-waste crisis, highlighting the importance of this piece.

The environmental contamination and human health risks posed by improper e-waste recycling and treatment have become a major source of worry in Nigeria. This is mostly caused by the burning of wires and the release of hazardous byproducts as a result of the activities of informal e-waste recycling businesses. ‘’High amounts of copper, nickel, zinc, and lead in some of the soils were established significantly more than European Union standards,” according to a study conducted in Lagos. The term “informal sector” is used to describe those in the e-waste industry who are neither taxed or regulated by any governing/legislative and/or regulatory framework. In the informal economy, state-of-the-art modern industrial instruments are used infrequently, if at all. As a result, worker safety is frequently insufficient and jeopardized. Figures 1.3 and 1.4 depict a typical scenario in which teens engage in crude e-waste burning to extract valuables in order to make ends meet. Figure 1.1 shows how a “fifteen-year-old Santana Alhassan Suidu burns a bundle of cords to expose the valuable copper wires to sell and barely makes $3.35 for 225 pounds of wire burned.” He sends the majority of his earnings to his family for their upkeep.
Over the years, Europe, the United States, and a number of Asian countries have continued to improve their e-waste management systems. The ways to managing the collection, recycling, reuse, and funding of these systems have been explored in case studies. In Nigeria, on the other hand, paucity of effective regulatory framework at the local, state, and national levels; illegal imports, lack of infrastructure, and low knowledge in the public have increased such developing concern. Worse, Nigeria lacks a well-established infrastructure for waste separation, storage, collection, transportation, and removal, making the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principle and the efficient implementation of rules relating to harmful waste management ineffective.
Surprisingly, this article contradicts a recent statement by one of Africa’s leading e-waste experts, who claimed that Nigeria and other developing countries must prepare to pay a “hidden cost for improper e-waste disposal, which has resulted in disruption to endocrine systems; damage to both male and female reproductive systems, DNA damage in lymphocytes, and other consequences.” The author believes that industrialized countries should be held accountable for exporting their e-waste to developing countries who take advantage of lax regulatory and enforcement frameworks in developing nations.
First and foremost, how does society see environmentally sound management (ESM) of e-waste and the informal sector? The “informal sector” because majority of recycling is done informally by low marginalized social groups who rely on scavenging and rubbish picking for revenue and survival. Aside from that, it appears that the informal sector is more prominent than the formal sector. According to available evidence, the informal sector “collected and processed around 360,000 tonnes of e-waste from illegal e-waste imports and from private households in 2010, recovering roughly 52 percent of the materials contained in the collected waste,” according to Ogungbuyi and co-researchers. According to another study, about 80% of the 24 million people who labor in recycling operations work in the informal economy.

Figure 1.3: A 15-year-old teenager – “burning a bundle of cords to expose the precious copper wires to sell” (Source: Dopefreshbrah, 2013; Photo by: Michael Ciaglo)

The motivation for this article is inspired, first by the author’s role as the head of department in charge of waste and materials management discipline for Shell Exploration and Production (Shell E&P) companies in Nigeria and Gabon way back in 2013, secondly, his long-standing concern in socio-economic impact assessment, health, safety and environmental issues, thirdly as a thought leader in the wider climate change discourse, particularly with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Basel Convention – suggesting that many of the most attractive technological solutions to climate change, such as solar energy and electric car batteries, will likely add to the rapidly growing stream of electronic waste (“e-waste”), and finally as one of the first e-waste laurel (EWA laurel) of the first (1st) E-waste Academy organized by the United Nations University, Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) (See author in figure 1.5 below during a practical session organized by UN E-waste Academy in Accra Ghana).
One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure (Seaber, 2014)

Figure 1.4: Scavengers working on Europe’s dump. (Source: Swingler, 2015) & Nigeria fears e-waste ‘toxic legacy ‘By Liz Carney, BBC World Service’s Dirty Business

A considerable amount of literature has been published on waste and e-waste. Therefore, in conceptualizing the subject of e-waste, it is imperative to come up with wide-ranging understanding into the much broader concept of waste. This is critical because the perception of “waste” is difficult to conceptualize. It is even more challenging to try to achieve a common definition of the term “waste”. The generic perception of the term “waste” is largely synonymous to the material contents that are of no value and has been rendered worthless, to be discarded. As a result, the concept of waste is comparative in two key areas. Firstly, a product ends up as waste when it loses its prime purpose for the end-user; hence someone’s waste output is often someone else’s raw material input more like “One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure”. Secondly, the idea of waste is also comparative to the hi-tech phase of the “art and to the location of its generation – making waste a very dynamic concept. Drawing from the quote above, it will be seen later in this article, that in most cases it is not the design of an item that necessarily regulates if it is waste; the attitude of the holder may be the determining factor, which makes waste a socially constructed phenomenon on the grounds of who generates the waste, where it was generated and when.

Figure 1.5: Researcher in long white sleeve folded shirt at an informal e-waste recycling/dismantling facility/exercise. 2013)


E-waste is expensive to treat in an environmentally sound manner, and globally, there is a general lack of legislation or enforcement surrounding it. Worthy of mention is the main characteristic of e-waste content on valuable materials that would be wasted if not properly retrieved. Drawing from that assertion, this article believes that the e-waste challenge also has an opportunity, i.e., if it is resourcefully mined for material reuse. The e-waste business seems promising as a ton of old circuit boards are said to contain more gold, silver, platinum than from a ton of and/or mined ore extraction, especially when recycled with the proper technology and not the improvised and unregulated informal approach.
Functional UEEE is of great economic importance in Nigeria and other emerging nations. They are exchanged as used goods. The high demand for these e-waste streams in Nigeria arises from the fact that a greater portion of the populace can barely afford newer EEE. With caution, one could say the international trade in UEEE tend to make cheap EEE accessible to low salary Nigerians and in return, the high demand has led to a flourishing global trade, even in other neighboring African countries.
In Nigeria, the e-waste toxic material is improperly disposed and consequently poses a risk to human health, contamination to soil biota, soil quality and soil water resources including surface and underground water. A typical example can be seen in figure 1.6 below

Figure 1.6: Burning of e-waste ‘cables at Agbogbloshie Metal Scrap Yard, Accra, Ghana” (Source: Öko-Institut 2010)

One of the many ways out of the e-waste quagmire is to implement the extended producer responsibility (EPR) strategies for appropriate e-waste management in emerging countries, to solve environmental pollution due to informal recycling practices.
This article agrees with Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that indeed EPR is a unique waste management strategy intended to support in advancing recycling and minimize landfilling of goods and resources with the basic feature where manufacturers are accountable for taking care of the waste produced by their goods placed on the marketplace. The emergence of EPR has generated various environmental policy-making trends. These trends highlight preventive measures over curative approaches, enhance life cycle thinking and changes the narrative on the “command-and-control” approach to a non-prescriptive, and goal-oriented mechanism.

On the flip side, though, one of the main drawbacks to adopting and using this principle is that whilst EPR is a better framework to addressing e-waste challenges, scholars have posited that the optimum e-waste management requires a blend of other management strategies like Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Material Flow Analysis (MFA), Multi Criteria Analysis (MCA) alongside EPR as no silver bullet and/or no single tool is adequate but together they can complement each other to solve this issue.

This article therefore agrees with the recommendations offered by researchers to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs’) to practice EPR and assume the liabilities associated with the final fate of their goods irrespective of where the EoL activity occurred; as well as assist with value-added recovery of EoL electronics through remanufacturing and component reuse; establish a market for recovered components and parts, support with technology and funding for the proper “recycling of e-waste and the disposal of hazardous components” using appropriate disposal technology.


The philosophy behind sustainability is for one to consider long term impacts of our activities to sustain finite resources for future generation. Therefore, an important task in moving toward sustainability is to alter manufacture and consumer behaviors. Hence, the quantity of environmental policies and legislations has increased in recent times to concentrate on reducing products’ environmental impacts throughout their life cycle stages – raw material extraction, design, manufacturing, consumption and EoL management. The latter from the e-waste and research perspective has attracted more attention in the last few decades because of environmental concerns and legislative constraints. Previously, producers were mostly focused on the quality and price of their products, and environmental problems were considered only in ‘end-of-pipe’ actions to meet environmental regulations. Nevertheless, overlooking the future consequences of end-product design during its life cycle made most EoL management programs inefficient. Thus, sustainable EEE product design, which lay emphasis on evaluating the future impacts of the goods at the design stage, is a vital component for the accomplishment of sustainability goals. A product’s designer has substantial freedom at the strategy stage, so EoL considerations can be factored in at the EoL stage.
As earlier highlighted, another disturbing phenomenon in e-waste management is the prevalence and use of child labor. Studies have shown that the employment of children (mostly boys, sometimes as young as 5 and mostly between 11 and 18 years old) occurs in e-waste informal sector – the children are largely engaged “in burning activities and manual dismantling as well as young girls aged between 9 and 12 seen working as collectors”. Separate studies reported that e-waste workers are often children and that children are considered ideal e-waste workers because they have small, nimble-fingered hands that enable them effortlessly to rip to pieces disused EEE. The exploitation and risk of children within the e-waste recycling industry is appalling especially concerning the physiological attributes that contribute to a child’s vulnerability. From a behavioral perspective, this article agrees with studies that young children typically exhibit hand-to-mouth behavior and crawl on the ground, which predictably leads to the direct ingestion of potentially harmful substances. Therefore, this article aligns and totally agrees with the International Labor Organization mandate that such practice “…be prohibited and eliminated as a matter of urgency, as stipulated in the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, 1999 (No. 182)”.


Due largely to the paucity of formal waste collection, disposal and recycling facilities in Nigeria, the informal e-waste sector has leapt up providing employment to the poor masses in the urban area and providing crude waste management services. In terms of working conditions especially in Lagos, there is a clear difference between the ‘refurbishing sector’ that buys and repairs/refurbishes used EEE and the assemblage and recycling business: This is because “working in the refurbishing sector requires a certain level of technical skills, workers are normally paid between US$ 2.22 and 3.36 per day, which is mostly better than the average income of e-waste collectors and recyclers, who earn between” US$ 0.22 and 3.36 per day. Conceding the differences seem to be of minor importance, a view on social security systems and job perspectives alters this valuation. The flip side of the issue is that, while refurbishers typically receive a fixed salary, scavengers are usually self-employed, and therefore experience large day-to-day income variations. Moreover, persons “working in the refurbishing sector often have the possibility to set-up their own small business, which often increases their daily income to around US$ 6.72 to US$22.2.


The resolve of this piece is to offer a clearer picture and insight to Nigerians on ESM of e-waste as well as the entrepreneurial cum socioeconomics, political and cultural viewpoints particularly for the informal sector. The informal sector because most of the recycling is done informally by the vulnerable poor and marginalized people who resort to scavenging and waste picking to generate income for survival.
This article espoused that informal e-waste recycling approaches predominantly have negative consequences on the workforce (including children and women) and the surrounding community.
*Informal e-waste recycling aids in cushioning poverty by offering employment, protecting livelihoods, and playing a fundamental role in socio-economic development
*It also lends a voice for a renewed situational awareness campaign across a broad spectrum of multi-stakeholders because of the observed low-level awareness in the Country.
*The article posits that to guarantee sustainability, present crude practices should be done in an environment-friendly approach by including occupational-health and safety procedures into informal practices.

Author recommends as follows:

Government to ensure a unified approach concerning all stakeholders – government agencies/policy makers, businesses, NGOs’/environmental organizations, the academia, and other key players within the vanguard of ESM and EPR of e-waste to satisfactorily address the broad spectrum of issues raised.
Government should not ignore the informal sector who have a competitive edge and well-known customer base otherwise, if sidelined they will continue to make the formal sector face a shortage in e-waste supply in Nigeria which will be at variance with the EPR and ESM philosophy.
also recommended for government to partner with OEMs’/manufacturers to build modest low-cost e-waste recycling facilities and use the opportunity to train the informal sector with the intent to incorporate them into the formal sector.
This piece also suggest that the informal sector should be assured that government aspiration is to as much as possible drastically decrease the damaging effects of crude e-waste management in the country, to uplift the labor standards and protection of the scavengers and complement in boosting the e-waste business.
Overall, the provision of a clear enabling business environment is crucial to improvements in this field. And as seen from prevailing evidence espoused from experimental data, it is almost prospective that this will come to fruition via a steady progression provided the right thinking and e-waste management winning ways of working (EM3W) are embedded.
Engr. Justice O. Derefaka is the Technical Adviser (TA) on Gas Business & Policy Implementation to the Honorable Minister of State, Petroleum Resources.

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