Accra, 9 February 2017: A hands-on training on e-waste plastics marks a starting point for new partnerships to work towards a better management of e-waste plastics in Ghana. The workshop aimed at improving technical skills to identify different waste plastic types, to recycle them and to find possible new applications. The workshop was jointly organized by the Ghana National Cleaner Production Centre, Empa, Oeko-Institut, the World Resources Forum, and the Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency. The event met high interest by e-waste recyclers, plastic-using companies, NGOs and various other stakeholders.
Plastics constitute an important part of e-waste – around 20% by mass on average. Their recycling, while technically possible in most cases, requires specific know-how, appropriate machinery and typically generates low profit margins. As a result, e-waste plastics are generally disregarded as a non-valuable fraction, that “gets in the way” of recovering the metal fractions. In countries with a largely informal e-waste recycling economy, such plastics are usually dumped or burnt in the open. The open burning of cables to extract copper and aluminium wires provides an emblematic example of such practices, and of their potential harmfulness. Open cable burning indeed releases dioxins and furans, as well as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and various heavy metals. The dumping and/or open burning of plastics containing brominated flame retardants, which include internationally banned persistent organic pollutants (POPs), provides another example of the public health and environmental hazards posed by improper management of e-waste plastics.
The training was divided into two sessions: a hands-on one, focussing on simple polymer identification methods, followed by a more theoretical session presenting the basic principles of plastic recycling and potential applications for recycled e-waste plastics. After these sessions, a discussion between workshop presenters and participants was initiated, aiming at identifying potential linkages between e-waste plastic producers and plastic-using companies.
The identification and segregation of plastic types, subject of the first session, is often necessary to produce high-quality recyclates as most polymer types are incompatible with each other. While automated sorting systems are used for that purpose in countries with high labour costs, manual sorting techniques can get a long way in places where labour is cheap and plentiful, such as Ghana. Combining identification techniques provided by the Swiss Plastic Education and Training Centre (KATZ) and methods observed in Indian informal plastic recycling facilities, workshop participants were taught simple tests to recognize and sort the main types of plastic found in e-waste. The group was divided into 5 teams that were each given a sorting tool-kit, plastic flakes of different types, and a 4-page handout containing necessary information to identify plastic types. This practical session was met with high interest, and by the end of the session most participants were able to correctly identify the various plastic types.
The second session introduced basic processing steps of plastic recycling, such as sorting, shredding, washing, pelletizing and injection moulding, as well as basic principles including the segregation and proper disposal of hazardous fractions (such as brominated plastics), and the avoidance of food-contact applications. Furthermore, possible applications for recycled e-waste plastics were presented, including both products that are already produced domestically (such as crates, pallets, waste pipes and waste containers) and products known to be common applications for e-waste plastics but lacking domestic production in Ghana (such as printer or vacuum cleaner housings, car bumpers, wheel covers and coat hangers). For this latter category of products, scrap exports could be envisaged.
In the final discussion, participants were invited to share their experiences and challenges with e-waste plastics. Most attending e-waste recyclers indicated struggling to find downstream markets for their plastic fractions, with no better option than stockpiling them at the moment. Besides taking up valuable space, growing piles of plastic also represent a significant fire hazard. Plastic-using companies reported having little or no experience with e-waste plastics, but several showed interest in conducting recycling trials with such material. In some cases, discussions were particularly fruitful and led to agreements between e-waste recyclers and plastic companies to collaborate in the future. SRI plastic activities in Ghana will further encourage and support such collaborations until the end of 2017.