E-Waste Management: Perspectives from Egypt

As the person in charge of reducing my company’s environmental impact and maintaining our ISO 14K certification, I had to find a solution for the ever growing number of discarded mobile phones from our employees, partners and 30+ million customers!

I explored almost every initiative related to e-waste management in Egypt. I participated in forums addressing the problem, attended meetings full of great ideas and intentions, met local and expat experts, participated in student competitions offering solutions and contacted overseas entities with great track record like Close The Gap, Umicore and Greencyc.

ewaste-mobiles

Despite all of these resources, I couldn’t find a scheme for collecting and recycling e-waste in Egypt that is environmentally correct and economically profitable or even sustainable.

The industry still remains small and localized within informal and primitive albeit efficient entities on the outskirts of Cairo. A fact that led us to collaborate with CID, a regional consulting agency in establishing a special e-waste school aiming to teach young waste collectors new skills and improving their lives; but that was about it.

Why isn’t this industry picking up?

E-waste management is a ‘labor intensive’ industry that is lucrative and has great growth potential. It is ideal for countries like Egypt; however the main and perhaps only reason it is not progressing as we want it to be is lack of flow to justify investments in a recycling facility capable of extracting value more than any scrap dealer.

You see, it is not easy creating a steady flow of e-waste as people don’t give up their old stuff unless they get something in return; and in poorer societies, environmental priorities are less important than daily livelihood.

Therefore, a direct incentive should have be offered to get these end-of-life mobile phones and other electronics from the drawers and into the recycling bins… at the same time, businesses are reluctant to pay money upfront for, after all, a risky and uncertain venture. So, until someone steps in and breaks this vicious circle, the industry will hardly pick up.

Sorry if I am pessimistic but it is better to know the challenges beforehand. I have examples of well-funded recycling start-ups that invested heavily in equipment and employee training but did not account for the cost of collection. They assumed that a “build it and they will come” model will work but it didn’t, and ended up in disaster!

The Way Forward

For a corporation looking to establish an e-waste program, here’s what how you should do it and what to expect…

  1. An e-waste initiative will start small; and probably, will stay this way for some time. The way I see it, the Egyptian market is still maturing.
  2. Sources of e-waste can come from the corporates and partners at least in the beginning, just to get the process going.
  3. Do not expect immediate profit, it can be a CSR initiative for a while but will soon be cash positive.
  4. As far as the government is concerned, I promise you will have full support. The Ministries of ICT and Environment are both keen to see a successful and sustainable e-waste management initiative.
  5. No need to re-invent the wheel; there are a few small companies already recycling e-waste with good track records. I particularly like one that seems to be having a lot of fun and most profit: Recyclobekia. Then there’s Egyptian Electronics Recycling with good on site operations and infrastructure.

Having that said, the way to a sustainable, profitable e-waste management business becomes a lot more feasible.

About Sherif Issa

Sherif Issa is the Head of Environmental Sustainability at Orange Egypt. He received a master’s in Civil | Environmental Engineering from City University of New York in 1985 and Bachelor degree from Cairo University. He is responsible for developing and maintaining the environmental management system covering all aspects of operations. He has participated in many sustainability initiatives, most notably the e-waste recycling school in Cairo, which graduated 150+ youth; providing them with niche skills and promise for better future. Sherif is a member of two Egyptian governmental committees: the Scientific Research Committee of National Council of Women and the Environmental Education committee of the Ministry of Culture.
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