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E-waste - circular economy scale

Repair technician working with electronic waste© IOM
The IOM e-waste project is recognised as the leading e-waste initiative in the humanitarian sector. The pilot has delivered the only comprehensive circular economy solution tested in a displacement setting, utilising tailored innovative sustainable procurement guidelines, and pioneering the first of its kind battery recycling technology. Now the project is rigging to scale with the continued support from Innovation Norway.

What is the challenge?

Humanitarian agencies provide basic life-saving services to displacement settings, including the distribution of electronic products to enhance energy access and communication. While serving their purpose, these products generate electronic waste (e-waste) when they reach their end of life. E-waste is a rapidly growing waste stream globally. Displacement camps follow this trend, however with several displacement-specific barriers for its effective management, whereby only 1% ends up at a formal recycler. Key barriers are limitation of repair centers and a lack of proper tools or spare parts available for effective repair. Consequently, end of life products are buried, burnt, disposed in latrines or open landfills, or kept in homes.

At a systemic level, the humanitarian organisations procure and distribute e-products, on behalf of affected populations. This eliminates the possibility of take-back schemes under warranty. Additionally, the financial model of the humanitarian system does not prioritise e-waste management. Reporting to donors on reach and value for money discourages purchasing more durable products at an increased cost, while imposing the financial burden on suppliers leads to profit loss. The result is that displacement settings are exposed to toxic compounds during unsafe disassembly or disposal. The common practice of burning increases the toxicity of inhaled particulate matter, in addition to expanding its geographical range of impact and number of people affected in congested settings. Improper e-waste harms the environment due to persistent pollutants remaining in soil, undermining camp sustainability and potentially causing further displacement. Lastly, inadequate e-waste
management results in significant loss of valuable materials, like gold, platinum, cobalt, and rare earth elements, whereby global e-waste is reported to contain up to 7% of the world’s gold, making it a highly valuable and untapped resource.

What is innovative about the project?

Through this project, which is the first of its kind in the humanitarian sector, IOM and partners have successfully piloted a system for managing e-waste in Uganda’s largest refugee settlement, Bidibidi. Through the pilot, the project successfully responded to the problem of ill-managed solar e-waste through the creation of a circular economy by:

  • Setting up product-collection and awareness-creation systems, employing 10 community mobilizers across Bidibidi’s five zones and the host community. The team used household visits and community meetings to collect broken lanterns, and to sensitise the communities about the dangers of poor e-waste handling.
  • Establishing a repair centre where the collected items were repaired by trained technicians, using spare parts from the solar product company BRIGHT Products. By using a circular economy model, the technicians pick viable parts from spoilt lanterns to extend the life of others.
  • Creating a “Bat lab” where old batteries were tested by technicians, who then assemble any viable cells into second-life battery packs.

The IOM Pilot has delivered the only comprehensive circular economy solution tested in a displacement setting, utilising tailored innovative sustainable procurement guidelines and pioneering the first of its kind battery recycling technology.

It is complemented by IOM`s Community Response App that was tailored to the project to collect real-time data to understand affected populations` needs and feedback, and allow repair technicians to report directly to manufacturers, enabling rapid modifications of product design. Once scaled, this will be the first e-waste initiative with significant buy-in from multiple UN agencies to leverage logistics networks and use recycled batteries in operations. It will ensure economies of scale for e-waste generation, allowing agencies to support livelihoods of displaced populations whilst capitalising on private investment in raw materials recovery.

What are the expected outcomes?

In the coming phase of the project, IOM will explore diverse income streams to ensure a self-sustaining business model;

  • Assess the local market potential for selling repaired solar lanterns and other e-products.
  • Explore battery-pack licencing and the purchase price for different sectors to utilise them in their operations.
  • Identify alternative income streams as carbon credit income, hybrid models and revolving funds from international organisations, government and the private sector.

Explore the potential for material buy-back with large tech companies, who recognise that global e-waste holds a value of approximately 60 billion USD of raw materials.

Sufficient volume of e-waste is crucial to generate revenue that can offset operational costs. IOM will set up more collection points and repair centres within Bidibidi and explore incentivisation schemes such as cash or vouchers for end-of-life drop-offs. IOM will also investigate potential volumes of other types of e-waste within Bidi Bidi and at other locations in Uganda, as well as partnerships with other UN agencies, private sector waste management companies and TotalEnergies’ service station network to establish a regional logistics network for e-waste pick-up.

The project will leverage lessons from other camps to gain insights into integration and the potential for joint approaches. In alignment with the initiative's focus on local empowerment, IOM will develop criteria to determine IOM's ongoing management role and the flexibility for transferring specific aspects of the model’s management to other partners, setting up necessary structures for them , and providing governance support and capacity building.

Who are the project partners?

This project is led by IOM who partnered with Bright Products, Aceleron, solvoz, Total Energies and the University of Edinburgh.

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