Nigeria has an enormous problem with electronic waste. An estimated half a million tonnes of discarded appliances are processed by the country annually—either by being buried in the ground, pulled apart for the valuable materials, or burned. To put that in perspective, Nigeria processes the equivalent of one hundred million iPhones every single year—enough to stretch from New York to Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, almost two times over.**
Each of the currently used disposal methods is extremely hazardous. Buried materials release their toxic chemicals into soils or the ocean for decades, while burning electronic goods releases those same poisons into the atmosphere. Up to 100,000 people in the country reportedly spend their lives picking through e-waste by hand to collect and dismantle electronic products, frequently contracting skin or breathing problems and suffering from shortened life expectancies.
Unsurprisingly, the country is heavily invested in finding a solution. And with the support of the United Nations and the World Bank-funded Global Environment Facility, it may have found a way to turn the threat of poorly managed electronic waste into an economic opportunity.
Fifteen million dollars have been set aside for a ‘self-sustaining circular economy approach’ to waste, in which the Nigerian government will work with the private sector and civil society to create new recycling and disposal systems. Little information exists about what these systems will look like, but the consortium stresses that e-waste collectors and recyclers will also be given opportunities to improve their livelihoods.
The UN also stresses that the prevalence of valuable materials such as platinum, cobalt and rare earth elements in e-waste means that a tonne of the waste contains “100 times more gold” than a tonne of gold ore. “A safe and efficient recycling industry has the potential to be big business,” it adds.
At the launch of the programme, Nigeria’s Environment Minister Ibukun Odusote said e-waste posed a “grave danger” to the environment and human health in the country.
“This intervention by Global Environment Facility aims to stimulate the development of a sustainable circular economy for electronic products in Nigeria,” she said, adding the new programme will also support one of Nigeria’s key initiatives to ensure producers take responsibility for the whole lifecycle of their products.
The project will be led by Nigeria’s National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) and will share best practices in order to inspire other countries across the continent to set up practical circular electronics schemes.
** To explain the maths:
Half a million tonnes = 500 million kilograms. 500 million x 0.2 = 100 million.
Put next to each other, 100 million iPhones would stretch for 15,000,000 m, or 15,000 km. The distance from New York to Lagos is 8,467 km.