People are increasingly benefiting from the digital economy and joining the information society. With rapid changes in technology and increased access to and use of electrical and electronic equipment, product lifecycles become shorter and many designs do not support repair or reuse.
As a result, electronic waste, or e-waste, is growing rapidly. Used, broken or obsolete equipment, such as phones, laptops, sensors, televisions and batteries, contain substances that pose considerable environmental and health risks, especially if treated improperly. Most e-waste is not properly documented and not treated using appropriate recycling chains or methods.
E-waste management is one of the greatest challenges facing the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in Argentina. Due to the environmental, social and economic implications, products must be managed sustainably at the end of their useful lives. It is important to understand that the various types of e-waste are heterogeneous and have specific characteristics. Therefore, their management, treatment and disposal must be undertaken responsibly.
Towards a Solution
As the United Nations agency for ICTs, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) helps Member States take advantage of ICTs to address challenges related to climate change. It also assists in addressing the issue of e-waste. Its activities include identifying guidelines, raising awareness, building capacity, collaborating with other UN agencies, implementing projects and providing direct assistance to Member States.
In collaboration with the National University of La Plata in Argentina, ITU established an e-waste pilot plant in 2017 to provide concrete responses to the e-waste problems facing cities, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. This project employs a multi-stakeholder approach, involving partners from the private, public and academic sectors who are working together to raise awareness of the need to address e-waste and recycle ICT waste responsibly. One of the main activities of the pilot plant is to refurbish computers, which are donated to vulnerable populations, including rural schools, indigenous communities and penitentiaries in La Plata. The plant works with students from the University’s various academic sectors, including engineering and science, as well as others who are responsible for the plant’s activities. A needs assessment, feasibility study and project design were conducted to establish a cost-sharing arrangement between the University and ITU, with the latter providing the necessary equipment and acting as the project executing agency. The University provided the facilities for the project, the technical staff and daily supervision on location for the project’s implementation and subsequent operationalization.
Students from the University receive scholarships and play various roles in the plant’s operation. In addition, capacity-building activities and trainings are organized for students and other persons interested in e-waste management.
During the project’s implementation, the following activities were undertaken:
- Identified premises for the e-waste pilot plant
- Designed the plant and processes
- Prepared the site, including furniture, telecommunications, electrical power and other utilities
- Established the terms of reference and technical specifications for the required equipment
- Procured equipment
- Developed guidelines and established processes and procedures to be followed
- Recruited relevant personnel
- Installed and commissioned the purchased equipment
- Operationalized the plant (the inaugural ceremony took place on 06 September 2018)
Upon its completion, the project had established a fully functioning and operational e-waste pilot plant. In furtherance of South-South cooperation, this good practice was shared with developing countries. Information-sharing and technological transfer are used to follow up on enquiries regarding the technical aspects of the project and the way in which other countries and academic institutions could establish similar e-waste plants.
The plant was innovative; this was the first time that ITU and the University had worked on a project of this nature. While the University had established a rudimentary computer recycling project, it did not address ‘reducing’ and ‘reusing’. The new plant embraced all three ‘Rs’ prominent in e-waste: reduce, reuse and recycle.
Due to the project’s relevance and success, the University’s e-waste programme has been strengthened. The programme has become more sustainable as a result of improvements in processing electronic equipment and reconditioning and repairing computer equipment and mobile phones. It has also generated more interest and involvement from many other actors, including those from the private sector and academia, who would like to collaborate on the University’s e-waste programme. The Government of Argentina also supported the project from its inception.
Lastly, the project helped to create and launch of communications campaigns to raise awareness among local communities about the importance of using appropriate recycling methods for electrical and electronic equipment.