Image: Solar Aid
Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. E-waste in Africa grew by 32% and in Asia by 37% between 2017 and 2020. E-waste from off-grid solar (OGS) is responsible for only a small portion of this growth, but as a responsible, impact-driven industry, companies are keen to limit any negative effects of end-of-life solar products on people and the environment. On top of this, governments are increasingly looking to implement regulations to help manage the e-waste challenge, and a growing number of investors are building in e-waste management into eligibility requirements.
But, with companies facing a myriad of competing priorities (not least achieving profitability whilst maintaining affordability and quality for consumers), what can be done today to set them on right track for better e-waste management and help move the sector closer to a circular model?
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for e-waste management, and the challenges for OGS companies are not insignificant. Nonetheless, there is low-hanging fruit that every company can act upon: ensuring that e-waste management is part of the fabric of the company from day one through effective policy, plans and training; raising awareness with consumers; and being ready to act whenever the local infrastructure catches up.
1. Build in circularity and e-waste management from the beginning
With many off-grid solar products now expected to last five years or more, it is tempting for companies to treat e-waste management as an afterthought – a problem for tomorrow. However, every OGS company, whether newly incorporated or already active in multiple markets, should have in place an e-waste policy and a roadmap for how they will reduce and manage e-waste today, tomorrow or five years from now.
Early planning for e-waste management allows companies to adequately forecast and monitor collection, storage, and recycling needs. Costs can be adequately budgeted for and allocating organisational responsibility early on means that it will not fall through the cracks. Many investors will also want to see an e-waste policy or management plan during due diligence, and so by developing this early, companies can impress potential investors with their environmental credentials.
OGS companies should integrate a periodic (at least annually) review of the local e-waste ecosystem in which they operate – and ensure that this is captured in their e-waste policy and roadmap. Various tools exist to help do this including GSMA’s E-waste Legislation Map and GOGLA’s Catalogue of E-waste Service Providers.
2. Raise awareness among staff and consumers
A lack of awareness about responsible disposal and the risks of poorly managed e-waste is one of the key barriers for effective e-waste management in off-grid markets. OGS companies are well placed to educate their staff and agents through simple training modules and build awareness amongst consumers by leveraging existing touchpoints within their customer journey.
GOGLA has developed a training guide for a typical OGS organisation, which can help companies integrate e-waste training into their existing onboarding and job-based training. Training for staff and agents should cover topics such as a basic introduction to e-waste, the country and company context, the risks of e-waste and mitigations such as safe storage and handling, as well as the specific procedures being implemented by the company. During the Global LEAP Solar E-waste Challenge, Kenyan company WeTu found that their staff were initially disinterested in their project. After undertaking e-waste training however, employees and agents were far more engaged and enthusiastic.
Building awareness amongst consumers can offer another ‘quick-win’ for companies. Companies operating a PAYGo model in particular are well placed to leverage existing consumer touch points to provide simple information about proper disposal of products once they reach end-of-life, and implement well-timed notifications when a product nears the expected end of its useful life.
3. Facilitate take-back and ensure safe storage
Faulty products and parts are generated from an early stage of business operations. Circular models can ensure that as much as possible is repaired or reused in-country (product suppliers can support distributors in building adequate repair and maintenance capacity and ensuring access to spare parts), but not everything will be salvageable. Companies can implement safe storage facilities, using low-cost, low-tech methods, to mitigate storage risks and buy time until larger volumes are attained and/or e-waste recycling facilities become available in the market.
Furthermore, with safe storage facilities in place, companies can encourage customers to return faulty products (whether in- or out- of warranty) to them for safe disposal.
Business Blueprints for E-Waste Management
GOGLA’s Business Blueprints for E-waste Management provide a practical suite of tools for companies looking to implement or improve how they plan for and handle end of life products – including a template E-waste Policy, KPIs, and Catalogue of Service Providers. The Blueprints are designed to be flexible and adaptable to different business models, company stage, and operating country.