One of the ailments of growth in developing economies is existence of informal economic sectors. I have previously shared some stories on how severely the illegal dumping of e-waste by developed countries to developing countries may threat the environment and health of the global poor, and how much these developing countries are in dire need of new business models of more inclusive waste management systems and even earlier theoretically explored possible strategic scenarios of international cooperation on e-waste management. Informal recycling is usually represented by the image of scavengers who live on waste picking and material segregation at the bottom of pyramids in all societies. It has sometimes been hypercritical in developed world that “existence of scavengers” is the shame of a decent society. Arguably, informal recycling is notorious for a list of sins such as environmental contamination, backyard industry, cherry-picking misbehaviors, hazardous health impacts and hidden flows of materials. For the sake of circumventing those problems, the European Commission has promulgated framework directives to reduce the space for informal recovery and to restrict informal recycling systems by intervening the direction of investments. While these efforts toward an environmentally sound management of waste in a prosperous and highly automated society are admirable, the rest of the world, nevertheless, have unearthed variegated solutions in the practice of recycling, particularly in a more inclusive and cost-effective manner. “It needs to be inclusive!” such voice has been raised by decision makers in many developing countries. It is clear that developing countries such as India, Brazil and China etc. have beat their own way forward by empowering organized informal recycling via cooperatives and public private partnerships. When policy disposals are effective in creating space for organized scavengers, developing countries reap a myriad socio-economic benefits such as poverty eradication, job creation, municipal budget saving, resource conservation and environmental protection.
In response to this, legislations, conventions, directives, laws and international initiatives have been extensively enacted in developed world during the past decades to solve the E-waste problem. In Europe, each EU member state organizes a register of EEE producers for the purpose of reporting and monitoring the recycling system. This is a way to ensure proper handling of e-waste. Only officially reported WEEE is guaranteed to be recycled in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. In practice, the producers tend to organize into so-called compliance schemes, which stand for collective responsibility; A separate entity, normally producers’ organization is founded to represent the producers and take care of their duties in managing e-waste.
The EU Directive gives an example of why national registers and compliance schemes are necessary for a desired e-waste management: “Data included in the impact assessment carried out by the Commission in 2008 show that 65 % of the EEE placed on the market was already separately collected then, but more than half of this was potentially the object of improper treatment and illegal exports, and, even when properly treated, this was not reported. This leads to losses of valuable secondary raw materials, environmental degradation, and provision of inconsistent data.” In compliance of national registers of the WEEE Directive, e-waste disposal and collection systems have been set up in hundreds of European cities by formal recyclers, particularly under the schemes of producers’ responsibility. Notwithstanding such effort, Europe could only manage to collect one thirds of its e-waste in compliance schemes, with the rest lost in uncontrolled flows.
Albeit the rich societies could decently afford the automated and well managed collection and recycling systems on the ground that citizens generally have high environmental awareness and self-motivations to dispose e-waste in designated points. The poorer societies generally rave too much pain to afford that. Merely replicating the practices in developed countries will introduce hardly any success but a plethora of socio-economic burdens. Technical solutions need to be matched with specific socio-economic conditions in developing societal contexts. The approaches handling e-waste problem in developed countries and developing countries are significantly different, so are the challenges. The challenges mostly lay in managing a sound take-back system and curbing illegal leakage of e-waste flows, while balancing the trade-off between material recovery efficiency and labor costs in developed countries. For developing countries, the challenge is another story. In absence of effective policy and legislation, management schemes and technological know-how, constrains such as informal activities, lack of sufficient investment, lack of technological know-how, intricate trade networks, active refurbishing activities etc., all distinguished the e-waste problem in developing countries as a more complex environmental and societal “persistent ailment” which requires piloting new and most suitable control measures that match the local socio-economic conditions instead of replicating the alien approaches from industrialized countries.
A while ago, I interviewed an expert on waste management from Asia. He candidly acknowledged the dilemma of kicking out informal sectors: “In some developing countries, we have evidenced, if political interventions are abused to favor the monopoly of a formal recycling actor by kicking out all informal recyclers from the market, the result sometimes turns counterproductive. Once all informal recycling individuals are eliminated, the formal recycler de facto holds the power to force the government for continual subsidies while the government can only reply on the formal recycler under the pressure of devastating amount of waste to be cleared everyday… therefore, the best strategy for the governance is to let the two sectors compete while incorporating waste pickers in the waste management system through cooperatives or public private partnership.” Besides, researchers in Harvard University also revealed that the complexity of e-waste recycling system indicated other issues to be addressed in the formal e-recycling industry despite the improved environmental and occupational health conditions compared to those in the informal sector. Hence, perhaps the best strategy for governments in developing countries is not to ‘kick out’ or ‘eliminate’ the informal players toughly and bluntly but instead to design some sort of ‘organization’ platform to integrate them while let the formal and informal organizations compete for a while during the transition phase.
For instance, during the last decade, Chinese government has designed and implemented the ‘household appliance old for new trade-in program’ as an innovative instrument to balance between cultivating formal sectors and creating value from informal recycling. Government agencies provide subsidies to retailors, collectors and recyclers to close the loop of e-waste. It achieved trial benefits: boosting domestic purchases for new products so as to leverage economic growth in the post crisis depression, piloting new recycling models for waste management, achieving inclusive and sustainable industrial development by incorporating the socially vulnerable people via integrative approach. The lesson China is suggesting via her pilot actions in forming circular economy and ecological civilization perhaps is helpful for other developing countries as well as developed economies. This perhaps echoes United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Erik Solheim’s recent opinion that ‘The Chinese model of Ecological Civilization should be promoted to the World’ particularly on the fact that ‘positive actions in ecological and environmental protection have brought more employment opportunities and created better, higher-paying jobs to benefit the least well-off positions of society.’