THE COST OF WASTE IN A BAD PLACE
A quote I very much love is “waste is a resource in the wrong place”. But having traveled to many developing countries, it has become clear to me that there are different levels of “wrong”. I would like to argue that we should make a distinction between “wrong places” and “bad places”. This distinction can be made both from two perspectives. One is finance: how do we get the best bang for the buck you spend on waste reduction. The second is ethical: is it smart (and fair) to slightly improve the cleanness of a developed country, when developing countries drown in waste.
Money spend wrong
My view is that from both perspectives, it is clear that the current waste approach in rich countries is in need for a 21st century update. Right now, waste management in developing countries is often so deplorable that we are bound to see global effects from this mismanagement. If not soon, then surely on the long term. As a result, money currently being spend on improving recycling rates in Western countries by a notch, or educate Western people just a bit more, could have had a much larger ‘waste reduction effect’ if spend in a country with poor waste policies.
Africa’s growing waste production
In (most) African countries metals, chemicals and pollutants are not properly disposed off, if separated at all. Thus, it’s easy to see that improving those waste situations would mean a direct reduction of environmental horrors such e-waste sites, polluted landfills and plastic saturated seas. Next to the huge opportunity embedded here to improve lives in developing countries, I believe we should all be worried about Africa’s growing pace of waste production and its lagging approaches to deal with that waste. And it should definitely worry us more about than the further optimization of our waste plants.
Creating jobs and income
At least for my business, I fully believe focusing on less developed countries makes business and ethics wise sense. We buy broken mobile phones in Africa and Asia, and ensure that the devices are recycled responsibly (which cannot be done locally). By preventing them from ending up in landfills or in illegal hands, we turn chemical waste into local jobs and income – and reusable materials. It’s a concept that delivers, both financially (believe it or not) and environmentally. And the latter is much needed, as research shows that just 1% of all phones sold in Africa are recycled at end of life. It also results in much media attention such as this documentary we’re quite proud of.
I’m quite proud to see what we have been able to achieve as a start-up in just a few years with little money: over 1 million phones collected and much environmental damage prevented. But at the same time, I am having more and more difficulty understanding why Western societies prefer the low return on investment of the many millions spend on tidying just their own backyards.