Electronic Waste Recycling Shows Promise for Skills Training

Addressing Our Growing E-Waste Problem

We all know by now that reducing waste, reusing everyday items for other purposes, and recycling components of our waste is better for our struggling environment. This is certainly true of our electronic waste – we are all eager to obtain the next device when it becomes available, but what becomes of the ones we discard?

Images of waste dumps, such as from the recently infamous Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, are disturbing reminders of the frequent answer to that question. Too often, the reaction to images such as Agbogbloshie is to ban dumping in areas such as this instead of seeking a better answer to the problem.

There are better solutions that might work for places like Agbogbloshie, and Tony Sharp, founder and Social Enterprise Development Manger of Substation33, under parent organization YFS, has perhaps found one in Australia. Substation33 is providing a safe, healthy process for proper electronic waste recycling.

Potential Workers Learn to Reduce Waste for Reuse

Substation33, of Queensland, Australia, opened for business in January 2013 as “an electronic waste recycling center, providing a workplace where volunteers and employees gain confidence and skills for the transition to sustainable employment,” according to its website, www.substation33.com.au.

This social endeavor has addressed dumped hardware trash and benefited its citizens by turning the discarded devices into tens of thousands of hours of volunteer work and training, shared by hundreds of people, along with thousands of hours of actual paid employment.

Substation33’s efforts have provided skills training for people who can take this learning into the broader field, teaching them to disassemble electronics into usable parts. Reclaimed parts are traded back into the manufacturing stream for reuse. This has addressed nearly 100,000 kilograms of waste that otherwise would have been in landfills.

Self-Sufficient Work
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While the reuse of reclaimed parts is economically beneficial to manufacturing, Substation33 is also nearly financially self-sufficient; the project is almost completely self-funded, with seventy percent of its income provided mainly from monies from the recovered parts and materials. The effort still depends on supplementation from philanthropy for approximately thirty percent of its budget.

This model, while working so well in an industrialized country, may actually work for developing nations as well, where electronic waste is already being sent for dumping. Workers anywhere could be trained, and parts could be rediscovered for sales back into the market.

Could this work in Africa?

There is growing interest in exploring this reduce-reuse-recycle approach in areas such as in Africa, where social enterprises are already developing economic empowerment and industry. While it may not be the absolute end to our growing problem of e-waste, it is certainly worth exploring.

Hand in hand with increased responsibility in manufacturing for reusable and recyclable devices, increased designing of devices and components with such reused and recycled parts, and increased interest in personal health and safety for workers, instead of a source of shame for the electronics industry and its consumers, dumping grounds like the one in Ghana could become a great source of skills training and legitimate recycling.

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