A Swiss-backed project to recycle e-waste in South Africa will be shared with other countries as a model for generating income while safely disposing of old electronics.
An initial test in Cape Town treated 58 tonnes of electronic equipment, created 19 jobs and made a profit of $14,000 (SFr16,480) over ten months in 2008, according to published results.
The joint backers, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa), Hewlett-Packard and the Geneva-based non-governmental organisation Global Digital Solidarity Fund, are heralding it as a success story that is on its way to become fully sustainable.
"What we wanted to achieve with this pilot project was to really build an example of recycling in developing countries, especially in the context of Africa, of where it can start and how it can build up, be socially responsible and create jobs, in a sustainable way," Mathias Schluep, the project manager, told swissinfo.
"The good outcome of this is that we really can use this and it is already replicated in Durban. We also want to use this in other African countries, and say this is an example, and how it can be done. This knowledge is needed in many countries."
In addition to income from the safe disposal and recycling of old and unwanted items such as televisions and computers, money was also generated through the repair and resale of some items.
Cape Town was chosen for the project in part because it is Hewlett-Packard's biggest market in Africa and therefore generates the most waste.
Empa had also previously developed local knowledge of the recycling infrastructure in the city and knowledge of how much e-waste was being generated.
"The difficulty is that South Africa does not really have a sustainable recycling system in place, like we have in European countries. We had a perfect set-up in South Africa to develop such a pilot project," said Schluep.
Elsewhere in the continent, countries are having to deal with illegal imports of e-waste, often originating from the United States and Europe.
In Kenya, for example, there are no viable disposal systems and regulations for treating the 3,000 tonnes of computers, printers and monitors accumulated in the country in 2007.
Greenpeace states that developed countries routinely export e-waste to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. The pressure group says inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 per cent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal.
In the US, it is estimated that 50 to 80 per cent of the waste collected for recycling was being exported in this way.
The organisation says that although recycling can be a good way to reuse the raw materials in a product, the hazardous chemicals in e-waste mean that electronics can harm workers in the recycling yards, as well as their neighbouring communities and environment.
In developed countries, electronics recycling takes place in purpose-built recycling plants under controlled conditions, but in developing countries there are no such controls and recycling is done by hand in scrap yards, often by children.
In the last week, the Zurich-based NZZ newspaper reported a cargo container with unchecked computer waste originating from Switzerland had been located in Antwerp, destined for Africa.
"It is one of the fastest growing waste streams, apart from general household waste," noted Schluep.
He argues that it is a particularly attractive form of waste as it can generate income and create jobs, but is tricky as it can be hazardous.
"So how can we make a sustainable income, especially in developing countries, out of this waste stream? You have to manage it, you need standards, you need the best available technologies," he pointed out.
"Our pilot [project] shows that the problem can be solved," Schluep added. "Through the mediation of knowledge and skills, we have the environmental and health problems under control. And even better, creative minds in the private sector were able to create other work from it."
The second stage of the project aims to train private local businesses that have become involved in e-waste disposal, work in partnership with them and introduce programmes in other countries. Experience gained from the project will also be included in a Unesco guide to computer recycling.
swissinfo, Jessica Dacey
The project is being carried out by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa), Seco's strategic partner in the field of cleaner technology cooperation.
Empa is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's institution for multidisciplinary research into sustainable materials and systems engineering. One of its core activities is research on environmental aspects of technology.
For a number of year Empa's Technology and Society department has been working on behalf of Seco to help developing countries with resource protection and sustainable technologies, as part of the "Knowledge Partnerships in e-scrap recycling" programme. The programme runs in India, South Africa, China and Latin America.
The department also heads the recycling working group within the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) worldwide initiative, under the aegis of the United Nations University and other UN organisations.
E-waste is the term used to describe old, end-of-life or discarded appliances using electricity. It covers all types of waste containing electrically powered components, such as computers, consumer electronics and fridges, which have been disposed of by their original users.
Electronic devices are a mixture of several hundred materials. Many of these contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury and hazardous chemicals. Computers, cooling appliances and mobile phones, for example, contain precious metals, flame retarded plastics and many other substances.
Valuable substances such as copper and platinum turn recycling of e-waste into a lucrative business opportunity.
According to experts, the elimination of one cubic metre of toxic waste costs between $400 and $680 in Europe, 15 times what it costs in Africa or Asia.
UNEP estimates that up to 50 million tonnes of waste from discarded electronic goods is generated annually.
A 2005 study by the Basel Action Network concluded that up to 75% of scrap TVs and computers shipped to Nigeria for "re-use" ended up buried or burned.